My son is a lot like me - poor kid. He loves to learn new things and share what he learns with others. Good so far. He also enjoys a challenge, but only to a point. He's pretty bright so most things come easily to him. The problem is when the challenge proves too much, when something doesn't come easily. Determined little bugger that he is, he'll keep trying and trying until frustration and exhaustion overwhelm him. Persistence? He's got truckloads. Patience? Well, that's another story.
When my son was a baby, he didn't just want to be able to turn over by himself, he felt a desperate need to do it and to do it now. He would try and try and try and try to roll over and I would try to help, just a little to get him started. But it didn't happen right away and so the trying became straining and the straining became battling and the result? Crying, screaming and anguish. And you should have heard the baby!
Crawling, sitting up, walking? Same scenario, over and over again. And things haven't changed much in eight years. The desire to roll over or to walk has been replaced with the need to speed read and to reach level three-gazillion on the latest Wii game within the first two days of ownership. My boy still loves to take on challenges and usually skates along effortlessly for a while. Eventually though, even the boy-genius hits a wall and then look out! The tears flow, pillows are beaten mercilessly and mommy's limited patience begins to wear thin. Granted, no one likes to feel frustrated, but as I've explained to my son, frustration is not the enemy. In fact, the ability to tolerate frustration is a critical ingredient in the recipe for a happy life. The real foe is our own lack of patience.
Patience doesn't come easily to all of us and I happen to think that the brighter you are, the less patience you are likely to have. But patience can be acquired. For most of us the development of patience is a natural part of our own growth and development. Throughout our lives, we repeatedly run into roadblocks and difficulties in getting what we want and little by little we come to expect and tolerate these set backs. As we mature, our ability to be patient grows. At least that's the way its supposed to work in an ideal world. But what if life, particularly in our youth, doesn't present us with many opportunities to develop patience? What if we live a privileged, easy life and everything is handed to us? Or what if intelligence and ability allow us to accomplish most things easily?
If life is too easy and you rarely find yourself in the position of having to delay gratification, chances are that you won't develop patience. Used to getting what you want when you want it with little if any struggle, you will have a very low frustration tolerance and see anything that causes you to feel frustration as the enemy. Unfortunately, this is a perspective that leads to much unhappiness. Although there are many ingredients that lead to a happy life, I believe that making friends with frustration should be near the top of the list. If you want to be happy, take on tough challenges and be ready to fail now and again. It builds character, patience and frustration tolerance all of which lead to greater resiliency. All of the happiness experts agree that it isn't as much the quality of your life circumstances that lead to your happiness as it is your reaction to and acceptance of them.
I explained it to my son like this:
When things come too easily too often, you get spoiled and begin to expect that everything in life should be that way. But eventually, we all want something that doesn't come easily. If we go through our entire childhood and early adulthood never feeling frustrated or struggling to get what we want, what will happen when the inevitable occurs and we find that what we want requires not just persistence but patience as well?
My son (have I mentioned how bright he is?) said that you would probably end up really frustrated and angry. Bingo! And the more frustrated and angry we become, the more difficult the task before us seems and the less likely we are to persist and succeed. The result? We feel like failures and end up bitter and unhappy. So what's the answer?
Here's the advice I gave my son. I told him that as crazy at it sounded, I wanted him to view frustration and struggle as his friends. He raised one eyebrow and gave me the what the _ _ _ _ look but I kept going anyway. Look, I told him, every experience that we have in life, whether good or bad, has something valuable in it, something that we can learn. From now on I said, whenever something is really, really difficult and you find yourself getting frustrated, take a break. Walk away, breathe deeply and be grateful. Yes, be grateful. Be thankful for that experience of frustration because it is helping to teach you two very valuable skills - patience and persistence. He took it all in as he usually does and then asked me what we were having for dinner.
He still gets frustrated and I see the tears well up, but the full blown hissy fit doesn't seem to follow. So far, so good. I don't expect miracles. He's still a kid and we are all human. We don't always think straight or remain in perfect control of our emotions. But I see progress. He still needs a little calming and coaching from mom, but I know that my words of wisdom are in his head and that he hears them when frustration strikes.
We all want our kids to have it easier than we did, but sheltering them from life's difficulties isn't necessarily the best way to make that happen. Just as it's better to teach a man to fish than it is to give him a fish, it's better to teach our kids how to negotiate the difficulties of life than it is to shelter them from the difficulties. We won't always be there to protect them, but we can help teach them what they need to know to build a happy life. Like most moms, I don't know how much of what I say get's through, but some day when I'm gone, I hope that my kids will remember these little talks of ours and that their lives will be better for it.