As Much As I Want To, I Can't Protect My Child From Life's Challenges
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As Much As I Want To, I Can’t Protect My Child From Life’s Challenges

Our instinct as parents is to protect our children from life's challenges. But that doesn't help our children grow, and can often hurt them.

Updated April 8, 2024 Opinion

Humans face challenges constantly, whether at work, at home, with friends and family, or elsewhere. Navigating challenges is an essential skill for everyone, and the foundation of that skill starts in childhood.

The Protection Instinct

Our first instinct as parents is to protect our children from anything that could cause them distress. When I see my son struggling, whether it’s physical, emotional, or otherwise, it causes me so much pain. However, as parents, we must remember that creating functional and happy adults is our job. Part of being a functional and happy adult is knowing how to manage the challenges we will experience throughout our lifetime. We also must support our children and provide them with the tools and resources to help them navigate challenges (such as therapy and coping strategies). Parents should also offer their children a non-judgmental and trustworthy environment where they feel open and supported in working through their challenges.

My son is a toddler. Right now, his challenges revolve around communication frustration.

I wanted a peanut butter sandwich, not a grilled cheese, but I don’t know how to communicate that!

I don’t want to play with cars inside, I want to play with the water table outside! I know what I want, but I just don’t know how to tell you!

His newfound ability to wield opinions while lacking the skills to articulate said opinions has created a significant challenge for everyone in our household. These challenges are relatively simple (albeit frustrating for all). But they are something that we have to navigate together.

I can only imagine that his challenges will become more complex as he gets older. He will begin navigating social relationships, understanding a changing body, and dealing with hurt feelings. There will be difficulties in school, working through illness (mental or physical), experiencing a bully, and so much more (that is just a short list!) — Not to mention the world of social media during adolescence, which will bring a whole set of challenges that our generation never had to face at that age.


Sheltering Does More Harm Than Good

Is it easier to shelter our children to ensure they never have to endure hardship? I think so. I’d love to keep my son in a bubble for the rest of his life. But what does that teach him? How does sheltering my son allow him to develop into an independent and emotionally healthy adult?

On the other hand, he’s still so young, so does all of this even matter? Yes, it very much does matter. Setting the foundation of trust and neutrality when it comes to children sharing challenges and issues with their parents allows children to be open, honest, and vulnerable. This creates a healthy bond and relationship between parent and child!

Setting the foundation to work through difficulties at a young age will be critically important in setting our son up for success. He must learn to navigate more progressively complex situations as he grows up. I think it is important to teach him that he cannot have everything that he wants and that he can generally be okay in the face of adversity (in this situation, yes, adversity for a toddler does mean not getting that peanut butter sandwich!).

Embrace the “Character-Building” Moments

I hope to teach our son the ability to navigate challenging situations he will run into in life. This is one of the best gifts that I can give him. To do this, as parents, we cannot protect him against every challenge he will face in childhood and adolescence. Eventually, my toddler son will become an independent child, a teenager, and then an adult. With that evolution of maturity comes experience. A person cannot gain that experience while being sheltered from the challenges that life has to offer. My parents often referred to those experiences as we were growing up as “character-building” moments. My parents always cultivated a relationship of openness and honesty while supporting us through our most challenging times. I want to be that parent for my son.

Step Back and Think

The next time you feel inclined to protect your child from a difficult situation, I suggest taking a step back and thinking about what the situation could teach your child. How can you best help your child navigate that situation? Challenges do not always mean “bad.” Looking back at some of the most challenging moments in my childhood and adolescence, I can think of many lessons they taught me. These are lessons I have carried with me throughout my life and allow me to continue to build upon my experience.

Teaching your child how to navigate life’s challenges is one of the best gifts a parent can give. Life’s challenges will always be there, and giving your children the skills to navigate them is priceless. It will continue to pay dividends as your children grow up. And trust me, they will thank you for these skills as adults!

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Katie is a stay-at-home mom of one (age 1) and a dog mom of 2. She is the author of Pieces of Cake Blog, which primarily focuses on topics related… Read more

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