Helping Young People Understand (and use) Suffering and Pain

How perfect should we try to make the world for our kids? Should we alleviate our children’s pain and suffering at all cost? Should we make sure every kid gets a trophy, every teacher is fair, all bullies are stopped, and no child ever slips and falls? Or should we use suffering as an opportunity to help kids contemplate how pain can often lead to knowledge, growth, and future success? The old adage, no pain no gain, is true.  Though, Shakespeare said it better:  “Sweet are the uses of adversity / which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, / Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.”  For young people, we created “Why Suffer by Tall Trees Grow Deep” a simple contemplation activity designed to get kids to think about the uses of their suffering.

In the classic novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley predicts a future where people are genetically engineered and psychologically conditioned from birth to fit into a perfect society without pain or depression. You’re given enough brain power to suit your position. You’re given a heavy dose of happy pills that take away all sadness. You have to work a little, but free-love and leisure rule the day. No one questions or worries or thinks too hard because they’re all being fed constant pleasure. You live perfectly healthy lives until you’re sixty; then you drop over dead. And anyone with any kind of existential angst, the kind that produces great art and music and literature, is quickly banished to an island.

There are a lot of startling lessons in Brave New World (and it’s amazing Huxley predicted many problems of our modern society in 1930), but what surprised me the most was my own initial reaction to this idealized world: what’s so bad about it? Isn’t that what we all want, to get as much pleasure as possible while avoiding pain? What if we could engineer a “perfect” world? Sure, the people in the book were all happy zombies, and they were denied access to anything interesting–philosophy, art, real love–that would cause anxiety or depression, but would that be so bad? Isn’t that what we try to do for our children when we try to make their worlds ideal, which is not that hard to do in this modern age. How perfect should the world be for our kids? The truth is, kids need to understand the value–yes, value–of suffering at a young age.

As a parent and teacher, my gut reaction when any child is facing a difficult situation is to try and fix it. I want to catch my daughter before she slips on the rocks and falls into the pond. I want to get my son inside and in bed before he gets over-tired and jumps off a fence and breaks his arm (failed at that one). I want to keep them hydrated and away from bullies and without cavities and not bored and not bruised and not stung and with positive friends and successful in school. I want them to have the best birthday party and a fun summer vacation and a good experience at camp. And as parents, sometimes we come pretty darn close to padding their every fall and making sure they get a trophy at every event.  In fact, we come too close.

We can only protect them for so long before the world catches up.  And the world will catch up.

We do children a disservice by making their world too perfect. We set them up for a severe letdown when they reach adulthood and realize they won’t always like their job, their girlfriends will dump them, their car will get stolen, the stock market will crash, and their house will go into foreclosure.

My wife and I used some aspects of the well-known (and sometimes infamous) Love and Logic with our own kids. We did not follow everything aspect, but what stuck with me most was the idea that we need to let our kids experience the hard consequences of their actions, as well as the hard nature of our often unfair world.  Whether that is getting to close to the edge of the pond and therefore falling in (getting wet, that is, not drowning) or not getting their chores done in time to watch a TV show. Or, having to cancel a party due to bad weather.  The point being, I think, is to let kids see the cracks in the foundation of life while they are still young, let them understand the give and take of pleasure and pain, let them see how we sometimes cause our own suffering (lots of candy, pleasure, often leads to stomach aches, pain) and sometimes we just suffer (sickness, mean friends, unfair teachers).

It’s okay for kids to know the world is not perfect.  It’s worthwhile for kids to see, early on, that fairness, though a great goal, is not going to always happen. Unfair, unwanted suffering is inevitable.  In fact, it is essential.

One tool I use a lot with my students is a little thought meditation I call Why Suffer?  It’s a straightforward reflection on suffering in our world and in our own lives, with the goal of getting young people to see how suffering can often lead to our greatest moments of growth.  We all know the story of the person who got fired and ended up changing careers and finding a dream job.  Or the tragic breakup that ended with finding true love.  It’s valuable for all people, old and young, to take some time to reflect on this.  We tend to separate our suffering with our success. So taking some time to reflect back on the most difficult parts of our lives, and looking for the connection to some of the best parts, can be very valuable.  I created a graphic organizer and some contemplation questions suitable for young people, which you can download for free: Why Suffer by Tall Trees Grow Deep.

We want to make the world perfect for our kids, but we can’t.  And we do them a disservice by trying.  Better to teach them to understand that suffering can often lead to growth and future success.

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Tall Trees Grow Deep is devoted to growing awesome humans through the sharing of contemplation, motivation, and inspiration resources for the young (and anyone who is not yet dead). Subscribe to get ideas and updates sent to your email (and we’ll throw in a sample e-book of some of our newest resources). Explore our growing page of free, printable contemplation activities for home or school.

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