A Daring Childhood

Feeding the Chickens, Walter Osborne

“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”

Seneca

About a year ago we got chickens. We bought them as little chicks and miraculously, they all survived to adulthood. Our two little girls adored them. They would rush to the coop every morning to see their chickens. We soon realized that one of our little chickens was a rooster. Once the hens started laying, the girls loved gathering the eggs in their basket. However, a few months ago our rooster started lunging at the girls and pecking at their feet. They became too scared to visit the coop. I wasn’t too sad to see their visits cease, I was scared of the rooster myself. However, my oldest daughter, tough girl that she is, invented an ingenious solution – she showed her younger sisters how to swing a stick at the rooster, forcing him to run off. Her younger sisters became experts in “Rooster Baseball”. They started eagerly tending to their chickens again.

A few days ago we had a little friend come over to play with the girls. They were excited to show her their chickens. However, they were quickly disappointed to discover their little friend was afraid of chickens and didn’t want to go in the coop. My youngest ran up to me and said in amazement, “Mom, she was scared of the chickens!” How quickly she had forgotten her own fears. I explained to her, “She isn’t used to chickens.”

My girls aren’t any more brave than their friend, they have just learned through experience the skills needed to raise chickens. They now feel a sense of control and power, developed through consistent exposure and by overcoming difficulty when chicken-raising got tough. Their sister, and a stick, helped them gain that confidence – and now their fear is a fading memory.

“The way that you make people resilient is by voluntarily exposing them to things that make them uncomfortable.”

Jordan Peterson

When we raise our children, we build for them a life full of experiences and these experiences become their reality. If we are intentional, we can develop a environment full of resilience-building habits, consistently encouraging our children to push beyond their comfort zones.

When I hear stories of my grandparents and great grandparents I am shocked by what children used to be capable of. My grandfather was seven and already helping drive cattle. My grandpa used to say, “Maybe there is a way to raise kids without a farm but I have never seen it done successfully.” Let’s hope he was wrong. But modern parents are at a real disadvantage compared to our ancestors in one way – teaching resilience and toughness through work used to be a naturally occurring process. Parents of the past not only wanted to have children, often they needed to have children. They needed help on the farm, in the shop, or in tending to household chores. Our modern sensibilities assume this “child labor” was all bad. But many children developed confidence and mental toughness through these necessary responsibilities. They knew they were helping drive their family toward safety and stability- modern children are often clueless passengers. While we should be grateful that children don’t have to carry the burdens they once did – we should not be blind to the downsides of our modern lives of ease, if that is what we have. (There are still billions living lives of financial and physical hardship all around the world).

While those blessed with economically stable lives may not be able to recreate the “necessary work” of our ancestors – we can be creative. I don’t believe in creating work for works sake – this can feel torturous to children. There must be some purpose and goal to work for it to feel meaningful. Raising chickens, involving them in household chores, and looking for opportunities to serve others – can help in building fortitude. Sports, music, and outdoor activities can be a good medium for teaching resilience as well.

“The habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference.”

Aristotle

As parents it may be easier, and safer, to keep our children on the couch – to entertain them with Netflix and video games. But Seneca points out, there must be “daring” if we want to grow strong children. We must dare – dare to point our children toward hard work and adventure and not mourn when difficulty arises, but rather see difficulty as a chance to build resilience and perspective. With every new experience comes new dangers – new worries for a protective mother. However over-protection can leave our child fearful and weak. We must resist the temptation to step in too soon, dare to risk a peck or two at your children’s feet.

“Far too often, we insulate our children from distress and discomfort entirely. And children who don’t learn to cope with distress face a rough path to adulthood.”

Kate Julian

Adversity and worry are a part of life, and increasingly seem to be crippling our youth. But we can raise a child that is capable of facing fears. We can “dare” them to do the difficult and unfamiliar and encourage them in appropriate risk-taking. We can give them the space to invent Rooster-baseball.

“During the first period of a man’s life, the greatest danger is not to take the risk.”

Soren Kierkegaard

Resources:

Kids and Anxiety. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/05/childhood-in-an-anxious-age/609079/

A great book in this subject is The Coddling of the American Mind. This video is a presentation by the author, Jonathan Haidt https://youtu.be/3b3Ob4CK4Xs

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