THE BLOG

Comfortable With Discomfort

08/09/2011 11:02 am ET | Updated Aug 22, 2011
  • Christine Carter, PhD sociologist, productivity and happiness expert, author of The Sweet Spot and Raising Happiness

Yesterday, I dropped my kids off at a rustic sleep-a-way camp in the high Sierras, where they will be for the next two weeks.

The drop-off didn't go very well.

When I was a kid, I begged and begged to go to sleep-a-way camp with my best friend Rory. I did extra chores to earn it, and I counted the days until I got there. I don't remember being homesick, or sad at the drop-off. I remember feeling wild and free. I loved the horses and the outdoors and ceramics. I got postcards from my teachers. It was awesome.

My kids have had mixed feelings about going to camp: they were excited, but also scared. "TWO WEEKS!?" my youngest cried when I told her what, to me, was great news: They were going to summer camp! "They have horses!" I said cheerfully, trying to drum up excitement. "And sailing! I've never been sailing myself," I mourned. "You'll get to do it before I do!"

I said this knowing full well that sailing is actually not on my daughters' bucket list. It's on mine.

The kids spent the last few weeks readying for camp and making serious sister pacts to stick together. My younger daughter, Molly, was particularly concerned about what would happen if her older sister made friends first. Would Fiona and she still pick the same activities? Could Molly join Fiona with her new friends? Pinky-swears of allegiance were traded, plans to sneak into each other's cabins made.

Molly had a plan: Fiona would take care of her. She was nervous, but also excited. Fiona was calm, reassuring.

That is, until about an hour before we arrived at camp. At which point Fiona became more clammy than cool and collected. She developed vague "not feeling well" symptoms. She was too carsick to eat lunch. When we arrived, she was faintly green. Altitude sick, I declared. "Drink some water," I insisted. "Take deep breaths," I said, taking them myself. "Think good thoughts, Fiona. Find two things to be excited about."

The thing is, I believe that it is important to challenge kids. To get them truly outside of their comfort zones so that they can grow. Hence two weeks instead of a mini-camp.

My desire to challenge my kids was reinforced in a recent Atlantic article about "Why the obsession with our kids' happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods." The gist of this article is that "kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don't know how to solve problems." And the article is right--they don't.

The article reminded me that happiness--the often fleeting emotion--in and of itself is not the goal. That comfort--my own or my children's--is not the goal. Instead, all of this is about how to lead a happy life. And while it's true that a happy life comes from positive emotions (like gratitude and compassion, for example), it also comes from having the tools we need to cope with life's inevitable difficulties and painful moments.

My kids have had their difficulties in the last few years--my divorce, a move away from a beloved school and neighborhood, a humbling medical situation--and they've risen to each challenge, though not without pain.

(I'd like to pause to acknowledge that even with those difficulties, my kids have a pretty cushy life. We don't have to worry about where the next meal is coming from or where we will sleep tonight. That said, the fear the kids had anticipating me leaving them at camp was very real to all of us.)

At any rate, by sending my kids to camp, I'm sending them the message that I believe that they can manage loneliness, and homesickness, and anxiety. I believe that they can, at the tender ages of 8 and 10, handle these difficult emotions themselves, without me standing over their shoulders telling them to breathe. As crappy as it sometimes feels to me, they simply don't always need me there, telling them what to do and what to think.

By sending kids to camp, I'm sending them the message that I think it is incredibly important to unplug: not just from electronics, but also from their well-meaning but often over-bearing mom. That it won't kill them to not report back to me on every high point and low point of their day, every kind deed, every "good thing."

In sending my kids to camp, I'm making it abundantly clear what I value: real time spent outdoors, the social skills needed to make new friends, compassion (the theme of their session is kindness), and most importantly, their own autonomy.

I say all this, but of course deep down I wanted it to be easy for them. So when Fiona became so nervous as we dropped her off that she needed to lie down in the infirmary, I also became a nervous wreck.

"She'll be fine," the camp nurse, Tigger, reassured me. "Now we need you to hop on that van - it is the last one headed back to the parking lot!"

I had become the lingering parent who wouldn't leave and who was making the whole thing worse for her kid by trying to make it better. But who could fault me for not wanting to leave my kid IN THE INFIRMARY?! I justified to myself.

In the end, Fiona rallied, and I did, too. I got on the bus and the girls began two weeks of what may be profound discomfort for us all. In addition to having tons of fun, I'm sure the kids are experiencing the discomfort of managing loads of new challenges on their own (albeit in a very safe environment). I am managing the discomfort of not-knowing, not-connecting--of just trusting. But I'm comfortable with that.

* * *

I love Nancy Davis Kho's often side-splittingly funny blog "Midlife Mixtapes." This week she wrote on a similar theme about a difficult year she had as a child.

© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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