One day, a man found a butterfly cocoon in his garden. He dutifully checked on the cocoon each day as he tended to his vegetables. On the momentous day when the butterfly began to emerge, he sat patiently and watched as it slowly made its way out of a tiny opening at one end. After several hours witnessing the miraculous birth of the butterfly, the man noticed it stopped, seemingly stuck as it made its way into the world.
So, the man decided to help the butterfly. With a pair of scissors, he snipped at the cocoon, allowing the butterfly to escape easily. But there was something strange about the insect; it had a swollen body and small shriveled wings.
The man didn’t think anything of it. He waited, assuming its wings would expand eventually. They never did. The butterfly spent its life crawling around with a swollen body and tiny wings that didn’t work.
What he didn’t understand was that the process of squeezing through the tiny hole forces fluid from a butterfly’s body into the wings, allowing them to expand. The struggle was designed by nature to prepare the tiny creature for flight.
Kabbalists have always known this. Yet, what makes this idea so hard to internalize, especially for parents, is our compassion. Our kind hearts and good intentions can sometimes get in the way of the struggles our children are meant to endure.
When my oldest daughter, Miriam, was in sixth grade she had to do a science project. Like most experiments, this was a project that would take a couple weeks to complete. From hypothesis to conclusion, this was not meant to be a project that could be knocked out in a day. However, due to a series of incidents (an out-of-town trip, dance try-outs, and a case of strep throat, or maybe a case of procrastination), my daughter forgot to inform me of this project, and “knock it out” is exactly what she had to do.
I picked Miriam up from school one day and could see anxiety all over her face. She confessed that the project was due the next day. She hadn’t mentioned it earlier because she thought I’d be upset with her for waiting so long. And so she ended up waiting too long.
My heart ached for the colossal task ahead of her. I began flipping through ways I could ease the burden, while also trying to teach her to be accountable and take responsibility. No, we couldn’t create weeks of data and analysis in one afternoon (a test to see if plants grow better when listening to Beyonce or Jay-Z was out of the question). But, surely there was something we could do.
After brainstorming and settling on a quick experiment we could easily see from start to finish in a couple hours, we made a detour on the way home, stopping by the hardware store, then the craft store.
With all the supplies she needed, Miriam was ready to begin. But gathering supplies was the easy part. And here is where a lot of well-meaning parents go wrong. She not only had to do the experiment, collect and analyze the data, then write a conclusion, she had to make it look good on that classic cardboard tri-fold all science projects have been displayed on since the beginning of time. Oh, how I wanted to help her cut out embellishments, mat her pictures, print out her findings, and glue everything on to that cardboard tri-fold perfectly aligned. But I could not do any of these things.
My job is to help her by listening to her thoughts, supporting her vision, challenging her to improve on her ideas, and then let her do the work. Let me repeat that last part, my job is to let her do the work. I can stay up with her well past her bedtime and offer moral support while she completes her project. But I cannot do it for her. As tired as she was as we neared midnight, the struggle to be had was entirely her own.
It’s hard to watch our kids struggle. We think, “Oh, let me just tie her shoe so we can get out of here.” Or, “I’ll just answer these last few homework questions so we can get on with the evening and have dinner.” We are designed by nature to struggle. And what we often don’t realize is that this struggle is necessary to our growth.
The kind hearted intentions of parents – indeed, of the man watching the butterfly – can rob our children of significant life lessons. By allowing our kids to struggle through difficult situations, we teach them to endure, to follow through, and perhaps most importantly, that they are capable. My husband, Michael Berg, has said in the past, “There is no quick fix, nor should we long for one. Spiritual fulfillment cannot be a gift. We must earn it; we must work for it.”
This is what we strive to teach and model for our children.
In the end, Miriam completed her science project. Although, it wasn’t her best work, it met all the requirements. She did it, and we can confidently say she did it on her own, crooked cut-outs and all. The following week we attended the school science fair. Each student stood by their respective projects, answering questions for the judges. In the car on the way home I asked her how she felt about the fair. We talked about projects that impressed us and results that surprised us. (I noticed a few projects that clearly exhibited the work of an adult, though I didn’t mention it to her.) After a quiet pause in the conversation, she spoke up.
“I think I could’ve done better.”
And there it was. A lesson learned.
I agreed with her and we came up with a plan for staying on top of school projects in the future. When kids do the work, they feel like they’ve earned the results, whether positive or negative. If we want our children to succeed, we have to let them struggle to birth their own wings. The work is always worth it.