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Don't Protect Them From Hard Things; Let Kids Learn Resilience

Updated: Apr 19

a resilient tree growing in the midst of a barren wilderness

True story: On March 28, 1905 a little girl was born in Medford, Oklahoma to a family who had arrived during the Cherokee Strip Land Run of 1893. Her name was Rosa. As a little girl, Rosa suffered a variety of childhood illnesses, including Scarlet Fever, Mumps, Measles, and a mysterious affliction characterized by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements, called St. Vitus Dance (now known as Sydenham's chorea). These were the days before vaccines and antibiotics, and even Tylenol; you had to simply endure until the illness had run its course.

Things were hard. During her teen years, she "took in ironing", using the kind of iron that had to be heated on the (wood-burning) stove early in the morning, before school, to pay for her school books.

For a year or so (also during high school) she lived with a young family on their farm, taking care of the 8-year-old twin boys, preparing meals, and tending to the housework and laundry, because the mother had cancer. It was hard, but she never really thought about it, she just did it; she was resilient.

Each year during threshing season, Rosa and her sister, and women from nearby farms, would get up before dawn each morning to prepare food for all the field hands. They'd light the wood stove and prepare the biscuits, gravy, and meat. Afterwards, they'd heat water for washing up, then it would be time to do it all over again for dinner, and the same for supper, until the threshing was done.

There was no electricity, so the wood stove had to be replenished throughout the day, and it was hot; there was no air conditioning, no fans, and they weren't wearing tank tops and shorts--but there was joy in sharing the work, the heat, the "hard".

As a young married woman, Rosa developed Tetanus (also known as lock-jaw); she'd had a tooth extracted, which became infected. She returned to the dentist each week to have the site lanced and drained, passing out each time from the pain (this was pre-anesthesia and, again, pre-antibiotics), but eventually the infection took over and her jaws became "locked".

Desperate, and seriously ill, she finally went to an M.D., who instructed her husband and sister to irrigate the wound 24/7 with a saline solution injected into her mouth via syringe, which they did. Thankfully, after a seemingly endless series of days (and nights) of this constant care, she recovered.

Rosa had her first child, a little boy, in 1924. Times were hard, so during the pregnancy, because she had only one or two dresses, she simply unbuttoned them and wore an apron over her expanding belly. The little boy, the delight of her eyes, caught a cold when he was about three years old, and died.

She eventually had a second child, a daughter. As her daughter grew up, Rosa made the little girl's clothes using a treadle sewing machine. When the Dust Bowl came along they put damp sheets over open windows to try to keep the dust at bay, and also to cool things down a bit indoors.

The family moved to Long Beach, California for a couple of years during World War II so that Rosa's husband could work in the ship yards. After moving back, the little daughter grew up, and after the war, was introduced to a handsome young marine; they got married in the little house she'd grown up in; she wore a lovely blue satin street-length dress handmade by Rosa.

Rosa is my grandmother, the little girl is my mother, and this is resilience. Rosa endured many hardships, many very difficult experiences, and she kept going. Like countless others of that generation, she made the most of the good times, and didn't sit around dwelling on the past. There was no thought of seeking out someone to "validate" her feelings, no option of therapy or using anti-depressants; she just kept going.

I'll probably never endure anything close to the sort of things she faced many times over; she is an example to me when I feel sorry for myself about something difficult, a reminder to look forward, to move forward and not look back.

The next time you are tempted to feel guilty about making your child "feel bad" by insisting he do as you say, punishing his disobedience, or making him eat something he doesn't like, think again. You're not abusing or mistreating your children; the abuse lies in failing to allow them to go through difficult things, and in always trying to shield them from the slightest pain and discomfort.

It may not be abuse, strictly speaking, but it will handicap them; you'll be robbing them of the strength and resilience that can only come through the experience of hard things.

Let your children fall. Let them fail. Be there to love, instruct, encourage, and support them, absolutely! But when they face challenges, conflict, and failure, don't run interference. Be strong, and let them learn resilience.

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