In Praise of Healthy Frustration
Everything I Needed to Know About Parenting I Learned from My Childhood Boston Terrier. (Well, Sort Of.)
When I was growing up, our family dog was a Boston terrier (a.k.a. Boston bulldog). Those of you who have been lucky enough to encounter members of this exceptionally good-looking breed of dogs already know that their determination is the only trait of this breed capable of rivaling their extraordinary beauty. That phrase “bull-dogged determination” wasn’t something someone just pulled out of a hat, you know.
AND THIS HAS EXACTLY WHAT TO DO WITH PARENTING?
Just as a Boston terrier approaches most tasks with an almost obsessive single-minded determination, a baby, toddler, or young child needs to have an incredible amount of drive and focus in order to push past the point of frustration to master a new task.
Of course, as anyone who has ever owned a Boston terrier can tell you, there are times when this single-minded focus can lead to frustration -- for Bostons and the people who love them. One of my relative's Boston terriers was quietly expelled from obedience school because he would not stop distracting his doggy classmates. He was there to play. The other students were there to work. Bye, bye, little Boston.
THIS DOES NOT COMPUTE
This is also the case for humans. There’s healthy frustration and there’s over-the-top frustration. When frustration shoots sky-high, all learning grinds to a halt and things can get ugly very quickly.
Think about what happens when you’re trying to troubleshoot a computer glitch. If you’re like me, you can persevere while the going is good.
- - If you’re making progress.
- - If your computer is behaving itself (not crashing every 30 seconds).
- - If you’re having a good day (you got a reasonable amount of sleep the night before and you don’t have a splitting headache, computer-induced or otherwise).
If you push past the warning signs that you are reaching the point of frustration, you’re treading on risky ground. You could make foolish mistakes that could cost you time (as you backtrack and undo all the impulsive things you tried as your frustration mounted and you became more determined to solve the flipping problem) or money (if you have to call in a computer guru to fix whatever it was you did).
MUST. GET. THAT. TOY.
Now think about how this applies to a baby who is trying to master an important skill (like figuring out how to get to a toy that is a few feet away). She needs to achieve a certain level of frustration in order to be sufficiently motivated to start experimenting with different methods of moving about the room.
Some of her early efforts will be complete non-starters.
Others will be crude but effective, like doing an arms-only version of the front crawl or using her toes to push off and propel herself forward.
And, over time, she’ll figure out that rolling or crawling are more efficient motions.
Of course, she won’t figure all this out in a day. Her learning will occur in spurts until that joyous day when she can finally roll or lunge on to that toy.
Each learning session, in the meantime, takes her a baby-wriggle closer to that goal. She problem-solves with every fibre of her being, only wrapping up each baby lab session when she reaches her natural point of frustration or when a well-meaning parent or sibling artificially preempts that opportunity for learning by handing her the toy or picking her up at her first little peep of annoyance. (While it's important to respond when a baby is genuinely unhappy or in distress, a peep of frustration is the natural output of healthy learning.)
HEALTHY FRUSTRATION: CAN-DO PARENTING
Part of the art of parenting involves observing the child and allowing her to experience enough challenge (healthy frustration) that she has a chance to work on the skill she is trying to master, but not so much time that she reaches frustration overload. It’s a fine line and you’ll be working with different input from your child each time you try to judge her capacity for frustration on any given day (how she’s feeling physically, how much sleep she had the night before, whether it’s almost time for meal time, how close she is to achieving a breakthrough with this particular task, what you’ve already learned about her temperament so far) to say nothing of the variables you bring to the table on that particular day (your physical well-being, emotional well-being, how much patience you have today vs. an average day, etc).That's what keeps parenting interesting, to say the least.
TIME OUT FOR REJUVENATION
There are times when everyone needs a break. For example, you simply aren’t up to the challenge of listening to your toddler go another round with the velcro straps on her shoes. In that case, it might be a great day to pull out the rubber boots or the bunny slippers and let her wear them at playgroup today. There's no rule that says parents or kids have to be "on" 24/7. It's okay to give ourselves and our kids a break at every age and stage. Timeouts for rejuvenation should be part of the standard parenting playbook.
ABOUT THE PHOTOS:
The Boston Terrier cannot be named in the interests of family harmony. The computer pictured is my former laptop while it was on death watch.