I first became aware of this concept through a beloved college professor, Dr. Walter Fremont, now with the Lord after having ALS for 20 years. He taught Child Psychology and Adolescent Psychology, among other things, and spoke at camps and conferences and retreats on the family.
In his book, Formula For Family Unity, in a chapter titled “Principles for Building Up Children For God,” he puts it like this:
Parents should not take the grit out of their children’s lives by protecting them from every hardship, blow, or disappointment. Remember, adversity strengthens character. For example…having them face the elements (rain, ice, and snow) while on a paper route will give them a strengthened will to face difficult times later in life. One mother thought she was helping her son…by getting up every morning at 5 a.m. to take him on his paper route. She was actually harming him by not letting him fulfill his own responsibilities. Children are resilient; they can take a lot if Mother doesn’t make them feel abused and neglected by an overly sympathetic attitude. Such a statement as, “Oh, honey, it’s so cold out there; I’m afraid you’ll freeze on your paper route,” produces a negative attitude in the mind of the child. Mother ought to say, “When you finish your paper route, I’ll have a cup of hot chocolate waiting and a good breakfast.”
Setting aside the example of a paper route (I don’t know if a child can do paper routes any more as they are so big now, and there are safety issues that weren’t as much of a concern then) and just concentrating on the principle at hand, do you hear the difference between the two responses from Mother in his example? The first can make the child feel sorry for himself and negative about what he has to do. The second is sympathetic and helpful, but in a positive, encouraging way, silently acknowledging, “It will be tough, but you can do it, and there will be something warm and comforting when you’re done.”
It’s kind of like the difference I learned to express when my firstborn was a toddler and preschooler. If he fell or did something where I thought he might have hurt himself, I’d gasp and rush to him: “Are you ok? Does it hurt? Are you bleeding? Poor baby! Come here and let me hug you. Shall I kiss it and make it better?” He may have been fine, but that reaction would make him think maybe he really did need that sympathy, and he would cry until he was comforted. Gradually I learned to just watch his reaction. If he seemed ok, we’d smile at each other, or I’d acknowledge what had happened in cheery voice, and he’d dust himself off and go on his merry way.
Of course, this has to be kept in balance. Sometimes sympathy, an arm around the shoulder, the knowledge that someone cares and understands, is just exactly what they need. God will give us the wisdom to know how to react to the different situations if we ask Him.
But I think as moms, especially, we have to curtail that inclination to want to smooth every path and make everything easy and take all the hardships and tough spots out of their lives. They’ll never be able to face the really tough stretches in the road of life later on if we do that.
See Rocks In My Dryer for a wealth of great tips.