“You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you.”
—Mary Tyler Moore
When my great-grandmother Bertha Kreuger was fifteen, the age my teenage daughter is now, she was preparing to immigrate to America. She could not read or speak English. She and her sister sailed here without their parents, whom they never saw again. She likely traveled in steerage, enduring dark, cramped, and filthy conditions for weeks, if not months. During her late teens, she worked long hours as a domestic servant before shipping out to Kansas as a mail-order bride. In her early 20s, she bore six children in a dugout cabin on a lonely prairie frontier.
Not allowed, encouraged, or required to experience discomfort and challenge, [some children] end up passive, oblivious, or even unkind.
Hence the problem that Krissy Pozatek’s parenting book was written to address. Brave Parenting: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Children (Wisdom Publications) is a thoughtful book, full of intelligence and empathy. Drawing on Buddhist teachings, the author warmly and gently encourages parents to stop cushioning their children from the world, and to allow them more opportunities for struggle and growth. Pozatek, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker working with kids and adolescents, has seen what happens when very well-meaning parents shelter their children too assiduously. Her clients are “sub-clinical,” meaning that she does not work with children with severe mental illness. Instead, she focuses on those whose life circumstances and choices have made them miserable, and shows how their lives can improve with relatively subtle shifts in their thinking.
Her case studies describe children who are out of touch with their feelings, who avoid the consequences of their actions, or who fear action because they have never been allowed to take risks on their own. Not allowed, encouraged, or required to experience discomfort and challenge, they have ended up passive, oblivious, or even unkind. While Pozatek describes these children with empathy and compassion, an earlier generation might have called them—and many of us—spoiled.
Of course, my great-great-grandparents did not ship their children to America because they were worried about spoiling them and wanted them to develop resiliency and grit. They sent them away because they were desperate. The families Pozatek works with are relatively lucky, because their resources provide them with some degree of choice: they can overprotect their children to their detriment, or let them experience challenge one rocky path at a time.
For Pozatek, the rocky path is not just a metaphor. Most of Pozatek’s work with children has been as a wilderness therapist. She takes groups of adolescents out to the woods on long trips, where they absolutely must work together, face physical and emotional hardship, and spend time feeling discomfort. In a bubble-wrapped, plugged-in, overly protected world, the best place to face reality is in a tent, in the rain or the heat or the cold, far from the nearest cell-phone tower.
Her most abiding metaphor in the book is that of “making moccasins.” As parents, she says, we should not try to lay protective leather wherever our children step in a misguided attempt to cushion their path through life. This is a foolish approach: not only will we run out of that metaphorical leather, but our children will paradoxically become weaker and less capable because of our best intentions. Rather, she says, we need to give our children the skills and experiences they need to learn to “make their own moccasins” in which they can walk confidently.
Other writers have addressed the topic of coddled kids before Pozatek. My favorite is Wendy Mogel, whom Pozatek cites, and whose books The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus (Scribner) use traditional Jewish teachings to inspire parents to let their children face adversity with support and love. Pozatek’s book treads similar ground, but from the perspective of Buddhist practice. She quotes Pema Chodron and other Buddhist teachers whose work has become influential beyond the ranks of practicing Buddhists. You don’t need to be a monk in saffron robes to benefit from what Buddhist philosophy has to offer.
Pozatek shows parents that we can—and must—set boundaries, be honest about our feelings, sit with the discomfort of parenting, and allow our children to face reasonably difficult struggles.
For to be enlightened, in the Buddhist tradition, is not to be free from pain and suffering, but rather to be fully aware of one’s experiences in an imperfect—sometimes painfully imperfect—world. Pozatek describes her own experience with Buddhist practice, and the ways in which her life transformed when she learned to accept and abide with her feelings and her circumstances. This insight in turn shaped her work with troubled kids and their families, many of whom needed to learn the same lessons that had helped her.
Pozatek shows parents that we can—and must—set boundaries, be honest about our feelings, sit with the discomfort of parenting, and allow our children to face reasonably difficult struggles. We don’t need to send our children away forever, but we do need to let them stumble and fall so that they can learn to pick themselves back up. Ultimately, this book challenges parents, for the good of our kids. We parents must choose to be brave so our children can become brave too.