My younger daughter recently had shoulder surgery – not something you plan to deal with when you’re an active 13-year-old whose sport happens to be swimming and who enjoys a full social life. Just after her surgery, I overheard a conversation she was having with her older sister who is away at college. My little one was clearly trying to stir up some sympathy from her sibling and was bemoaning the fact that she has to wear a sling for eight weeks and will then have the daunting task of trying to regain her strength to get back in the pool and swim over the course of the next six months. My older daughter dispensed these words of wisdom to combat her sister’s complaints: “Adversity is a good thing.”
This gem was spoken by the same girl who complained incessantly when her iPhone went in for repair and she had to use that “awful, ancient” Motorola Razr for three whole days: “But Mom, it’s impossible to text on this thing! And it has no Internet!” Imagine the adversity of having to use a 6-year old cell phone for three whole days!
But in all seriousness, I thought about these words of wisdom and how Daughter #1 came to the recognition that adversity can be a positive and not a negative. As it turns out, my oldest does have some valuable lessons in adversity that she can share with her sister when it comes to their chosen sport of competitive swimming. Daughter #1 has been swimming on a team since she was five years old, on a competitive, year-round club since the age of nine and is now on partial scholarship, swimming for a Division 1 college team. During her years in the pool, she had an almost comical (though, in reality, not funny – or fun – at all) number of coaching changes – particularly during her formative periods. She also witnessed all of her best friends leave the team or quit swimming entirely, and struggled through a two-year plateau where she did not see a millisecond of improvement in any of her best events. She experienced most of this during her high school years, continuing to attend nine practice per week, including three mornings where she had to rise at 4:15am, drive 15 miles to the pool and practice from 5-7 am, attend school all day, return to the pool for practice from 4-7 pm and then conquer the usual homework and chores most students have to deal with. She struggled to balance swimming, school, family and social life. She was fortunate to have a few good friends, her family and a couple of special coaches who encouraged her to stick with it and if you ask her now, she’ll tell you she is happy she did and could not imagine her life without swimming. After breaking through that time of struggle, she was recruited to one of the top college swim programs in the nation and in June, will compete at the 2012 Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, Nebraska.
While I admire her, I do tease her when she talks about conquering adversity. After all, she is not living in a war-torn country with the threat of dropping bombs all around her or living in an impoverished, third world nation where she goes hungry every night, nor does she suffer from a debilitating disease. When we speak of adversity, then, we are speaking of a very personal kind of adversity that does not even begin to compare to what some in the world unfairly struggle with every day. Nevertheless, though it is all relative, she has experienced struggles and difficulties and has come out the other end stronger and a better person.
More importantly, this issue of adversity got me thinking about what we give our children, what we do for them and whether or not it helps them, at the end of the day. As a child who was raised by a single, working parent struggling to make ends meet, I worked hard and saved to make sure that my family never had to face the same. As a child of divorce, I promised myself that when I got married, it would last, and knock on wood, here I am, married to the same guy for 26 years now and going strong. As a child who attended four different schools in sixth grade alone and was uprooted numerous times to different states, cities and neighborhoods, I made a pact with my husband that we would raise our children in the same place so they wouldn’t have to experience that upheaval. So far, so good – we’ve been in the same house for nearly 14 years and our daughters have grown up and gone to school with essentially, the same group of kids.
’m happy that my husband and I were able to provide these things for our children and I certainly don’t regret following this path. But I do have to wonder: is it really a good thing that I’ve protected my children from so much adversity? I look back at my own childhood and while there were many difficult times that I would never want to repeat, there were also important lessons learned. Having a mother who struggled financially motivated me to begin working at the ripe, old age of twelve and never stop. I was determined to work hard, have my own money and not be dependent upon anyone. It also motivated me to achieve in school so I could attend a good college and have a higher-paying career. Being the child of divorced parents taught me about relationships – what I wanted from them and more importantly, what I didn’t want. Having to move and uproot was painful, but it taught me how to adapt to new situations quickly, how to make new friends and how to adjust to new surroundings. I learned valuable coping skills that contributed to success in school and have been advantageous in the business world.
As I look back on the lessons I learned from my childhood experiences, I wonder if my husband and I have somehow done our daughters a disservice by giving them a stable, financially comfortable upbringing in which they can avoid much of the adversity I dealt with. Where will they learn the importance of hard work? How will they know the value of financial independence? Will they be able to adjust to new situations and new people? Can they handle the only constant in life – change – when it is thrust into their paths?
While I don’t know for sure, I am at least comforted that somewhere down the line, my older daughter began to view adversity as a good thing and is now trying to impart this wisdom to her sister. She may have overcome a different kind of adversity than I had to, but it’s clear that she has still learned the crucial values of hard work, persistence and perseverance. There is relief in the knowledge that she is almost at the end of her freshman year and thus far, has successfully navigated life away from home – adjusting to new surroundings, making new friends, succeeding in both the classroom and with her sport. I can only hope that the same will hold true for Daughter #2 when it’s her turn – that maybe her sister is right that the small adversity her shoulder surgery thrust upon her will result in some valuable lessons about determination, hard work and resilience.
Do you think adversity a requirement for success? How do we give our kids a comfortable life without sacrificing the lessons that can only be learned by struggling a bit?