Toughing it out

I’ve been thinking about one of the arguments I often hear for keeping kids in school even when they’re miserable, even when it’s taking a toll on their confidence and vitality.  “They need to learn to deal with hardship,” people often tell me.  “Life isn’t easy, so we shouldn’t make childhood easy.  I’ve had hard times, and it made me stronger. I learned determination and how to cope.”

I don’t disagree that hard times and challenge can make people stronger.  But there are two things that concern me about this line of thinking.  First, there are different kinds of hard times.  There are naturally occurring hard times (sickness, loss of a loved one), hard times that one chooses (a craft to master or a dream to realize) and then there are hard times that one party manufactures for the presumed sake of another.  Different types of hard times and challenge yield different lessons and results.  Adults don’t tend to say “School was a miserable experience for me, but I’m so glad I had to suffer through it.” I do however hear a lot of people say things like “I’m so glad I didn’t quit taking karate when it got hard, because now I know I’m capable of more than I sometimes realize.”

The nature of the hard times makes a difference. The ones we insist on just for the sake of teaching the art of surviving hard times don’t seem to have the same positive effect as the ones that are naturally occurring or chosen.

Second, it seems to me that even if we’ve decided that it’s worth it to impose hard times on a person (as we do when we force school and other mandates on kids), we’d be wise to more carefully consider the relative cost.  Maybe kids are learning valuable lessons by enduring the hardship that school is for many of them.  But at what cost?  Does the benefit justify the cost?

I mentioned the book Reality is Broken a few weeks back.  I’m further into the text now and still maintain that it’s one of the top few books I’d recommend to parents trying to understand the various preferences and resistances that are common among present-day children (attraction to video and other games, interest in technology, lack of interest in and commitment to traditional academic training, in spite of ability and potential).  In the author’s discussion of Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi‘s work on flow “(the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning,” according to Csíkszentmihályi), she mentions Csíkszentmihályi’s belief that the structure of games can teach us a great deal about the structure of good sustainable work.  “Games teach us how to create opportunities for freely chosen, challenging work that keeps us at the limits of our abilities, and those lessons can be transferred to real life.  Our most pressing problems – depression, helplessness, social alienation, and the sense that nothing we do truly matters – could be effectively addressed by integrating more gameful work into our everyday lives.”

Kids are (often desperately) trying to get us to realize this.  They arrive with the intuition and wisdom to recognize which things are going to offer that experience of accomplishment and heightened functioning, and which are not.  We think that as adults we know better.  We think that if we give kids too much freedom to pursue what intrigues and inspires them they will not be prepared for adulthood.  But do we know that for sure?  And if we don’t, isn’t the world in dire enough straits – financially, socially, emotionally – to merit our taking the time and energy to consider that the way we’ve been doing things thus far may be flawed or lacking in some way? That kids might in fact know something about preparing one’s self to thrive in the world that we’ve lost sight of?

Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken walks readers through the ways in which games are structured such that they can teach us how to engage with the world in a satisfying way that gives us the experience of exhilaration and even joy while including challenge and hardship, calling on our capacity for persistence and determination in the face of it.

Many of us are often so resigned to our own plights of boredom, anxiety, and worse that we storm around insisting that real life is real life and it’s hard, so stop trying to play.  Get serious.  McGonigal invites us to consider that it may in fact be that the things we truly need – safety and security, good health, joy and contentment – become more readily available when our first priority is to connect people with the activities that offer them the most engagement and sense of accomplishment. The way games do.

What if kids aren’t looking for an easy way out when they turn away from the things we’re accustomed to insisting upon, when they turn toward the likes of games and other things we think are “just for fun?”  What if they’re looking for vitality, connection, accomplishment, and we’d be wise to let their wisdom set us on a new course?

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One Response

  1. Yet another fantastic post!

    I think it’s helpful to distinguish kinds of stress and kinds of perseverance. Like you say, there’s the perseverance of full engagement with a project or a question, self-guided (or at least voluntarily entered into, as in the case of martial arts classes, etc).

    And then there’s the perseverance of making it through crappy times (illness, disappointment, fear) — and life delivers those with regularity even for little kids without our having to go construct those kinds of experiences for them.

    Our default ways of talking tend to conflate these two kinds of perseverance but I don’t think they are the same skill and I don’t think they are transferable. The idea that if kids find school unpleasant they will then learn to persevere in achieving hard goals — I don’t think it works that way. I think chronically unpleasant experiences are defeating and despiriting and undermine goal-oriented perseverance.

    There may be a third kind of perseverance which is about sitting with boredom or uncertainty and learning to trust that with patience something will guide you into the next moment. In my experience, school teaches little about that kind of perseverance because the minutes are so structured. Learning to work with boredom, to hang in there with it and to listen to yourself in it, feels like a precious skill that few people get to learn from these days, kids or adults. (I’m distinguishing here between the boredom created by unstructured free time from the boredom of having to absorb a great deal of information someone is feeding you that you have to memorize for a test later but that you’re not all that interested in — we need new words!).

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