I have been reading The Upside of Your Dark Side by Robert Biswas-Diener, Dr. Philos and Todd Kashdan, Ph.D. The premise of their collaborative work is that people need to feel uncomfortable in order to grow and thrive. Although this is not a parenting book, their approach has a lot to contribute to the art of parenting. They are both schooled in positive psychology, but they argue that it does not provide all the answers. In order to thrive a person needs to utilize his/her whole self, negative thoughts and all.
I am a fan of positive psychology. I have successfully applied it to my practice and my own life. That beings said, growing up in France, I remember many hours spent talking with friends about the woes of the world, family struggles and our crushed dreams. We also discussed solutions and our objectives for the future. Depressive thoughts were not seen as something undesirable or frowned upon; they were part of life. Everyone had them, and to pretend otherwise would have been dishonest. Pain led to growth, and so we saw it more as a right of passage than something truly negative.
Discomfort and Stronger Kids
The authors of The Upside of Your Dark Side suggest that by providing our children with every comfort, physical and emotional, we are robbing them of the ability to cope with discomfort. We are altering their growth experience. Children are prevented from walking or biking to school because parents are afraid of the risks that may or may not be there. Kids get trophies for participation because parents don’t want them to feel bad that they didn’t make the goal. Some parents even do their children’s homework and school projects for them. Parents do whatever they can to prevent their children from failing and feeling pain. But what if our well-meaning efforts were damaging their chances at a fulfilling life?
By preventing our children from experiencing life in all its glory, bumps, bruises and all, we are making them soft. They need to build up calluses, but we keep doing the work for them, leaving their temperaments soft and fragile. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener argue that discomfort is a gateway to dealing successfully with life. In other words, a child who is not comfortable with roughing it, physically or emotionally, will not be able to cope with boredom, relationship tensions, or the necessary struggles to succeed in their endeavors. They suggest that parents take baby steps to reduce their over-protective tendencies and allow their children to develop a tolerance for discomfort.
The Purpose of Pain
I started reading this book just after my teen daughters lost a dear friend of theirs to cancer. It was hard to watch how the pain they experienced took over their lives. They felt angry, sad, depressed and confused, but I was glad they allowed themselves to feel these emotions. Their group of friends all dealt with it in their own way. I would have thought that they would all spend more time together, but most chose to keep busy in order to avoid the strength of their emotions. My girls tried to organize get togethers, but were mostly turned down. We live in a society that avoids grief and pain at all costs. And yet, pain can be a testament to our ability to love and build meaningful lives.
The Positive Purpose of Negative Emotions
We grow through our experiences, both positive and negative. Boredom forces us to be creative and seek out new opportunities. Doubt gives us a chance to improve our skills. Anger makes us aware of our anxieties. Betrayal makes us re-evaluate our social bonds and business alliances. Difficulties force us to forge on past the obstacles that face us. Failures can be the fertilizer allowing for future success.
In their excellent book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Deider make a convincing case for a whole person approach to psychology, resilience and parenting. Our kids deserve the opportunities to experience life in all its glory. If a little discomfort can fuel their growth and allow for more positive outcomes, perhaps it is time we let our children experience life for themselves and form their own calluses.