A Lesson From Babies…It’s Okay To Struggle

Last week's parent/toddler class was all about feeling ‘stuck'.

The previous week, 21-month-old Audrey had wedged herself between the bars of the wooden climbing structure and looked at me with a worried expression. “Are you stuck?” I asked. I moved close and — without touching her — talked her through pulling her legs out from between the bars and reaching to the bar below so that she could climb down again. After glancing at me with a look of self-satisfaction, she climbed back up to repeat the experience. Another toddler, Travis, then climbed the bars and tried getting stuck, too.

Travis seemed to remember this last week. He climbed up the structure, slipped his legs through the bars and looked at me meaningfully. “Are you stuck?” I asked. He smirked at me before freeing himself again. Soon, Audrey, and then Charlotte followed suit. Charlotte sat between the bars for a long time, swinging her legs in the “stuck” position.

A few minutes later, Sage placed a stacking cup inside one of the buses. She tried to pull the cup back out. I sensed her mom wanting to help, but resisting the urge.  “Is it stuck?” I asked.  She fiddled with the cup for a moment, then left it and moved on to something else.

Later Sage climbed onto one of the large wooden blocks, sat on top and seemed unsure about getting down again. “Are you trying to get down?” I asked. She reached out for me as if to ask to bring her down. “I won’t let you fall,” I said, not touching her, but just spotting. She was hesitant and seemed uneasy. “Do you feel stuck up there?” I asked. She reached her arms towards me again to help her, and though I felt like a meanie, I resisted. “You want me to help you down, but I’m going to let you do it, and I won’t let you fall.”

Sage spent a few moments inching across the top of the block and looking down at the floor before she gained the courage to slide down the side, reaching her feet a few inches until she touched the floor. “You did it.” Thrilled, Sage pranced victoriously across the room towards her smiling parents.

Babies don’t mind struggles. To them, frustration isn’t a bad word. But without meaning to, we teach our babies to fear those things by projecting our adult point-of-view, by reacting (or overreacting), hurrying to “bail them out.”

If we want to encourage our baby’s ingenuity, persistence, and self-confidence, it’s best to try to stifle our urge to “help” and provide plenty of opportunities for safe struggles, even when they cause a little frustration. Our infant might need to work for days, even weeks struggling to roll from back to tummy, or stretching himself to reach the toy that is just out of his grasp. If we stay out of the way, just verbally comfort, acknowledge and encourage our child, (giving him breaks, or helping minimally if he starts getting too frustrated or exhausted) he eventually experiences (and completely owns!) the thrill of his accomplishment. 

By feeling “stuck,” overcoming obstacles and also dealing with “failure” to achieve a particular goal, our children build strong coping skills that will make life’s temporary setbacks much easier to bear. It’s great to succeed, but being “not there yet” is a part of life and okay, too.  Then, like the toddlers in class, they can continue to approach feeling stuck as just another fascinating state of being, an experience to examine, embrace, and hopefully overcome through confident perseverance.

Wouldn’t it be grand if we could all retain this healthy, positive attitude towards struggle; if we could face writer’s block, a job search, being in-between relationships, grappling with life’s toughest challenges with interest and enthusiasm rather than fear?

-Janet Lansbury of Elevating Childcare

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