Guest post by Janel Breitenstein
My family and I are headed back from Africa, which twists my heart in all sorts of new ways. But with that, my kids will be attending school for the first time—American school. Any of you mamas out there imagine the ways that messes with a mama’s heart
So many of my prayers have been poured out like water over their adjustment. Over finding just one solid friend. Over teachers and my son’s learning disorder and my kids’ abilities to be kind in the face of insult. And I think this is as it should be: asking God’s generous favor, slathered all over our kids.
But there’s this. I was reading Brene Brown last night, who occasionally helps me get my emotional head screwed on straight. And she reminded me of this:
It’s not just that our children can’t stand the vulnerability of handling their own situations, it’s that we can’t stand the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, even when we know it’s the right thing to do… but something in my research dramatically changed my perspective and I no longer see rescuing and intervening as unhelpful, I now think of it as dangerous… Here’s why: Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle.
Brown outlines that she suspected to find in research that hope was
a warm, fuzzy emotion—the feeling of possibility. Second, I was looking for something that I had thought of as being scrappy and nicknamed ‘Plan B’—these folks could turn to Plan B when Plan A fell apart. As it turns out, I was wrong about hope and right about scrappy and Plan B…hope isn’t an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process.
In short, she describes it as our kids being able to reformulate their goals, persevere and be flexible about how to get there, and believe in their ability to accomplish it. Kids who can do this have “been given the opportunity to struggle and in doing that they learn how to believe in themselves.”
Now, before I lose you in “believe in themselves”—I mean, is our kids’ confidence really supposed to be in themselves? Is that postmodern feel-good talk? Shouldn’t our kids’ confidence be in God? Yes and yes. Because yes, it is God who is faithful, and will carry us and His work on to completion. But He also instilled in us, when we’re working in tandem with Him, to have “everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).
It’s like the monkeys dive-bombing in trees around me here in Africa while I type: They can kamikaze with confidence, because God’s embedded in them what they need to leap. (In our kids’ case, hopefully they even have the untamable power of the Holy Spirit.) And through the experience of leaping—they learn that they actually can leap. That He’s there to give them what they need to hang on.
I’ve written before about why it’s critical not to shield our kids from disappointment—and how it’s dramatically shaping our culture’s ability to cope with any opposition. Author and Manhattan pastor Tim Keller confirms from other scientific research from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “people who endure and get through suffering become more resilient. Once they have learned to cope, they know they can do it again and live life with less anxiety.”
And haven’t we experienced this, wincing through everything from a shot at the doctor’s to that huddle of sneering peers?
Reflecting back on my time here, I could scrawl you an elaborate list of the fears my heart hauled to Africa. Honestly, I was afraid I might lose one of my kids. I was freaked about the notoriously corrupt police officers at a simple traffic stop, and attempting to bribe me—or even worse, if I got in an accident in all the jaw-clenching traffic. Or worse! If an accident took someone’s life. I was white-knuckled about people stealing from us, or trying to take advantage of us.
Truth: Some of these fears were not nearly as likely as I thought. I can’t remember the last time I worried about my kids’ lives. I feel remarkably safe here, and I have loved raising my children here.
Also honestly: Some of these did happen. We were robbed once. We have been taken advantage of probably more times than I’ll ever know. And I am grieved to say that I was involved in an accident where a man passed away, and spent the next four hours with the police attempting to bribe me, though I’d done nothing wrong.
But here is what I know: As my mom has said, God has showed me that even when my worst nightmare happened, He was there. And we got through to the other side.
This helps me not to act from anxiety and control of my kids…but from faith. Which makes all the difference in the climate I set in my home. And it may even teach my kids to praise God when life stinks.
Keller continues that suffering “strengthens relationships, usually bonding the sufferer permanently into a set of deeper friendships or family ties.” And finally, “suffering ‘changes priorities and philosophies.’” Obviously we are to hate suffering like God hates suffering.
But Christianity’s gargantuan advantage over every other world religion is the meaning infused in suffering. Suffering not only has a purpose. In the end, “Christianity offers not merely a consolation but a restoration.” God doesn’t just give a meaning for all our deaths and griefs, small and large. He offers resurrection.
So when the school doors fling open at the end of August, gaping with possibilities—it’s okay for my kids (um, and their mom) to struggle a bit, or even to redefine what success will look like for them. Though I hate—hate—their pain, I long even more for their resilience; for God’s beauty spiraling upward from ash.