Human beings are wired to seek comfort. Babies instinctively react to discomfort by signalling distress. When hungry, they cry. Wet? They wail. Cold? Howl. Physical discomfort is usually the primary trigger, but it isn’t long before loneliness, boredom, frustration, jealousy, and other feelings unrelated to survival are signalled through tears as well.
A generation or two ago, parents were told to let their children cry, to toughen them up. This clearly went against the grain, or parents would not have needed stern reminders to resist the urge to hold and comfort their babies. In fact, parents seem to be wired to respond to an infant’s distress by attempting to ﬁgure out what’s wrong and remedy it (if only to stop the noise). And these days, experts encourage us to heed those instincts, lest the baby grow up feeling insecure. It’s only when a parent decides to try to sleep-train a child that anyone frames discomfort as being for the baby’s own good — and even then, many parents’ resolve (mine included) crumbles after a minute or two of heart-rending wailing.
What’s new, though, is that the desire to protect our kids from discomfort of any sort sometimes persists long after they’re able to sleep through the night. The term “helicopter parenting” dates back to 1969, and by the 2000s it was such a commonly used phrase that it had earned a place in the dictionary. Today, hovering over toddlers at the park is the least of it. Some parents go on to write essays for their university-age children and step in to solve even the most minor problems on campus, according to university administrators.
The impulse driving this kind of behaviour is as old as time: we don’t want our kids to suffer as we did, even if “suffering” merely involved pulling the occasional all-nighter to get a term paper written. We want our children to have better lives than we did. But these days that’s a really tall order, because it’s harder to get into university, harder to ﬁnd a great job, and harder to buy a ﬁrst house than ever before. No wonder we hover over our children as if they’re rare birds, trying to ensure they thrive in this brave new world.
But what if we have it wrong? What if some degree of discomfort is good for kids? It seems evident that it is. Isn’t that why children have chores and homework? Of course, shouldering responsibility isn’t as comfortable as lolling around the house, texting with friends, but most people agree that it’s quite a bit more beneﬁcial in terms of equipping kids for real life.
In fact, it’s difﬁcult to imagine how anyone could achieve much in life without ﬁguring out how to tolerate some degree of discomfort and push past it. As new research into the consequences of helicopter parenting suggests, trying to protect kids from life’s turmoil appears to have the opposite effect: it may weaken their coping skills and ramp up their anxiety. More generally, when kids aren’t pushed out of their comfort zone and encouraged to try new things — whether it’s zucchini or a new way of holding a baseball bat — they miss the opportunity to learn, not just about the world but about themselves and their own capacity to change.
I began to think about this more when my own son started school. Preventing bullying was, and still is, a major endeavour at schools, and I was grateful for that. I certainly didn’t want my kid to be pushed around or made to feel inferior. But the laudable goal of preventing playground terrorism seemed to have morphed into an earnest attempt to prevent any behaviour that might make another person feel uncomfortable. Responding in any way to “difference,” my son was told, was unacceptable. Inclusion and tolerance were good; exclusion and rejection — even principled rejection — were bad. By implication, kids who were snubbed because they transgressed norms — the grandiose liars and nose-pickers, the ball hogs and snobs—were recast as victims of bullying.
I began to wonder about the unintended consequences of trying to shield children from all forms of negative social interaction. Might that not wind up creating more problems — and more serious ones — than it prevents? In the rush to protect kids from any form of hardship — physical, emotional, or mental — would we inadvertently “protect” them from positive formative experiences too?
My own childhood taught me that discomfort can be instructive, in a good way. Growing up with six brothers and sisters, I learned early about boundaries and what happens if you don’t respect them. Not unlike puppies in a litter, we tumbled over each other and meted out some fairly rough justice. The two sisters closest to me in age — Elisabeth and my twin sister, Adrian — taught me pretty early that if I didn’t play by the rules of the game, the consequences could be very unpleasant. For some reason that I hope our mother doesn’t take too personally, no one wanted to be the mom when we played house (the fun was all in how the “kids” in the game tormented the “adults”). One time too often, I decided the game should end just as my turn to be mother rolled around . . . and as a result, found myself shut out of that game, and all others, for a while. Given that my sisters were my closest friends and playmates, being ostracized deﬁnitely hit home and led to lasting behavioural change.
I want my son to be able to tolerate discomfort and learn from it without being scarred by it. The idea isn’t to “make a man” out of him but to help him acquire a skill that seems to be essential to creativity and change. If you cannot tolerate discomfort, you cannot get better at things that are difﬁcult. You cannot achieve your own goals. You cannot grow.
Even in organized sports, though, the objective seems to be to make kids as comfortable as possible. My son’s ﬁrst soccer league, for instance, was proud of its feel-good policy: the purpose of the game, the kids were told, was not to compete with others but to have fun (competition, apparently, is not fun). Games would not be scored, because keeping score only made some people feel like losers and others like winners. And there were rules to prevent the most talented players from dominating a match: they were required to pass, whether passing made sense or not, and if they made three goals, they were pulled from the game. The best kids were in effect penalized for their superiority, and their play was restricted in cross-league competitions — which were called “festivals,” not “tournaments.” (It was amusing to note, however, that while ofﬁcially there was no score, every six-year-old on the ﬁeld knew exactly how many goals had been scored and which team walked away the winner.)
Maybe all this sounds harmless and a little silly, but I think the impact of these early experiences is more profound than we imagine. Sure, my kid didn’t toss and turn at night, racked with envy of other players or shame about his own performance. But he also didn’t push himself harder to practice or to step up his own game. Why bother, when goals didn’t really count at the “festival”?
The impact on the kids who actually were standouts was likely even greater. Research shows that children who are gifted, whether physically or intellectually, may be even more afraid to risk failure than those who are “average.” That’s a problem when failure is so often the early result of trying to learn something new or change in some other way. Researchers have found that gifted children, who experience success early, often exhibit less conﬁdence, possibly because they’re aware that they didn’t exert much effort to achieve results. What they haven’t learned is how to try hard at things, fail, then pick themselves up and try again — essential skills not just in school but in life. In other words, they are less likely to be comfortable with discomfort, which may help explain why prodigies rarely go on to become creative geniuses.
Ellen Winner, a psychologist who has studied child prodigies, found that “only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators.” They can — and often do — perform very well in their chosen ﬁelds, but few are able to make the “painful transition” to adulthood and become grown-ups who create something wholly new. What is painful, exactly, about that transition? The fact that the prodigy, long accustomed to approval and gold stars, must get comfortable with discomfort: uncertainty, wrong turns, the possibility of failure, and the certainty of the occasional disappointment.
Students who periodically occupy the discomfort zone learn the habit of making an effort —and learn also that failure is usually the entry fee for attempting to change and grow. However, educators have become increasingly wary about making students feel uncomfortable — even on university campuses, whose raison d’être is to challenge young people to stretch their minds. At schools and universities across North America, educators are being warned against teaching material that might upset their students. Trigger warnings are supposed to be issued before potentially offensive material is taught. What’s on the list of such material?
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which, apparently, contains misogynistic material that might upset women and trigger traumatic ﬂashbacks. I’m not making this up. In the Atlantic magazine in September 2015, constitutional lawyer Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describe an atmosphere in which college professors are ter- riﬁed of their own students. So quick to take offence are the students that professors are reluctant to say anything provocative at all. But however difﬁcult self-censorship is for the professors, it is almost certainly worse for their students. “It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche,” the authors write, and transforms campuses from safe places for free speech into “‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”
In other words, schools are working so hard to avoid giving offence that they cannot teach one of the most important lessons of young adulthood: how not to take offence. Learning to cope with discomfort — disagreement, aggression, and criticism (even wholly unprovoked aggression and criticism) — can be one of the greatest accomplishments of a child’s early school years. Robert Reich, who was among other things President Bill Clinton’s undersecretary of labour, attributes much of his personal development and even his later professional success to being bullied as a child.
Born with a congenital issue that limited his growth (he may be an intellectual giant, but Reich is only four foot ten), he attracted an outsized portion of bullying. Rather than be cowed by it, however, Reich set about ﬁnding ways to offset it. He developed his intellect, for one thing, and formed alliances with larger boys who were willing to protect him. Those friendships wound up being pivotal, partly because those boys had special qualities of their own, such as kindness and courage. Ultimately, being pushed around on the playground shaped Reich in a deep and lasting way, helping to strengthen his resolve to persevere and overcome. To make something of himself.
If he had it to do over, Reich would probably not choose to be wrapped in cotton wool and protected from all the bumps and bruises of childhood. Nor would he volunteer to be bullied. But if forced to choose between those two extremes, he’d be more likely to select the option that created discomfort. Discomfort, after all, forged his character and propelled him to achieve.
Short of bullying or turning ourselves into drill sergeants, how can we as parents help our kids learn to tolerate discomfort so they can grow? Is there any way to make this palatable to kids?
Yes, says Ilana Ben-Ari, the founder of Toronto-based Twenty One Toys. Long-limbed with a slightly ethereal air, the thirtysomething industrial designer doesn’t look hard-hearted, but she specializes in making toys that rub kids’ noses in discomfort. Nicely. It’s good for them, she says with a smile. “Play is super important in teaching us to be adaptable and okay with the unknown,” she explains. “Innovation is uncomfortable. We don’t want things to change — it goes against our makeup. So step number one is just to be comfortable with discomfort.”
Ben-Ari’s best-selling product is the Empathy Toy, which consists of two identical sets of ﬁve beautifully crafted wooden pieces with a range of textures, shapes, and conﬁgurations. There are cog and arrow shapes — some with grooves and notches, some with ﬂat or textured surfaces, some with raised dots evocative of Braille. The pieces can be joined together in thousands of ways, but they don’t just glide together. You have to ﬁddle with them and jiggle them around. That’s by design: the point is for players to struggle a little bit.
The Empathy Toy is actually more of a game than a toy, and it involves three players with distinct roles. One person, the observer, assembles a set of pieces into a conﬁguration, then hands it to a blindfolded second player, the guide. The guide feels the conﬁguration and then, using words only, tries to help the third player, the builder — also blindfolded — construct exactly the same shape using the second set of pieces. The game is over when the builder has replicated the original structure. Or almost over. The observer, who has had to bite her tongue and watch silently as the temporarily blind try to lead the temporarily blind, often starts a conversation about the guide’s and the builder’s false starts and hilarious misunderstandings. All of this usually takes ten to twenty minutes, then players swap roles, blindfolds are donned once more, and it’s time for another round.
Ben-Ari believes that the abilities kids need in order to innovate — empathy, comfort with improvisation, and accep- tance of failure as a key part of the creative process — cannot be learned via traditional pedagogical methods. Schools, in her opinion, are virtually useless when it comes to teach- ing kids how to be more creative and innovative. “School is about schedules. The worst thing you can do in school is hand something in late. Not hand in a bad idea—just late.” Her most receptive audience for this message? Schools. The Empathy Toy has been shipped to more than eight hundred schools in thirty-ﬁve countries.
I was taken with Ben-Ari’s passion and vision, but I wondered if the Empathy Toy wasn’t one of those creations that sounds great to adults and is a dud with kids. So I asked if I could road-test it on a ski weekend with my son, my sis- ter, her two kids, and one of their friends. I wondered what our video-obsessed, attention-span-challenged offspring would make of a wooden toy that required patience and a back-and-forth that went beyond monosyllabic grunts. I was particularly interested in knowing what my eleven-year-old son, Julian, who can get frustrated when he’s not immediately good at something, would think of it.
To my surprise, the kids couldn’t get enough of the game. They vied for the chance to be not only the builder but also the observer, since putting the toy together even without a blindfold on is a creative, fun endeavour. Interestingly, the kids were considerably better at being the observer than the adults were; we couldn’t stop jumping in to try to “help” the builder with hints (common, Ben-Ari says, especially for teachers and nurses, who seem to have the hard- est time watching children struggle).
But Julian and the other kids didn’t seem to mind a bit that the game was hard. That’s what they liked about it. I also think the toy was a hit because success demanded teamwork. The guide really wanted the builder to understand the instructions, and the builder really wanted to follow the instructions and assemble the thing correctly. Amazingly, our screen-obsessed kids didn’t mind sitting quietly and watching two players talk each other through a complicated construction.
Watching the kids play with the toy, I was struck again by how misguided it is to try to shelter children from all discomfort, or to present it as a negative rather than a challenge. Not only can they cope with a little discomfort when it’s framed as a challenge — especially a playful challenge — but they will build their conﬁdence and stick-to-itiveness as they work through it. Kids who play with Ben-Ari’s toy don’t just develop empathy — they also foster resilience, collaboration, and creativity.
Those “soft skills,” prerequisites for innovation, are more important now than ever before — and they’re increasingly difﬁcult to nurture in our instant-gratiﬁcation world of gaming and texting. Robin Wilson, a guidance counsellor at St. John’s High School in Winnipeg, told me some kids refuse to wear the blindfold when playing with the Empathy Toy — it makes them feel too vulnerable. Others get so irritated when they can’t assemble the toy with ease that they whip off their blindfolds and hurl the toy’s pieces across the room. Always on the lookout for a teachable moment, Wilson uses their reactions to encourage her students “to take a temperature check” and rate their anger or frustration on a ﬁve-point scale. “One, you’re happy and relaxed; ﬁve, you’re ready to explode and your brain has stopped working properly.” For her, the Empathy Toy is about developing not just empathy but self-regulation, by helping kids identify and manage their emotions so they can recognize when they’re escalating to three and can avoid hitting ﬁve and having a meltdown.
Ben-Ari’s latest toy may come in handy in that regard: the Failure Toy helps kids become comfortable with failing, and to view it as a necessary step in the learning process. Next up is the Improv Toy, so they get comfortable taking risks. Ben-Ari’s mission — to equip kids with the twenty-ﬁrst-century skills they’ll need to venture into their discomfort zones and realize they can thrive there — is all about the upside of discomfort.
Excerpt from The Beauty of Discomfort by Amanda Lang © 2017. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.