Letting Our Instincts Be Our Guide


I have had several conversations, with family, friends, and colleagues in recent weeks about the concept of adversity in life leading to character resilience. No one likes to face difficult times, (in fact nowadays it seems that most people don’t really want to even feel remotely uncomfortable, let alone deal with life challenges), but it is in the challenges that we indeed often find the deepest growth.

Research shows that viewing challenge (e.g., failure, frustration, disappointment, hard times, obstacles) as an opportunity to learn, grow and become a stronger person, is psychology’s definition of hardiness. Not only to survive stress or challenge, but ultimately to thrive through it all, is what deepens our coping mechanisms to face whatever life throws our way. What happens to us should not define us and while dealing with challenges we are building our character.

As parents this can be a particularly hard concept to stomach. Protecting our young is the very essence of parenting, but helping our children grow and ultimately launch themselves into the world, armed with the tools they need to succeed, is also part of our parenting job description. So, when do we hover and when do we back away?

These questions brought to mind a story I shared a number of years ago with our parent community. I think it’s time for a reshare.

A few years ago, there was a video that went viral about a baby elephant who was saved by their herd after getting caught in a strong river current. While on safari, a group of travellers witnessed this amazing display of the powerful bonds that exist in the animal kingdom, and they caught it all on camera. The river was deep, and the banks were high, adding a real sense of drama to the remarkable rescue.

Everyone that watched this adventure saw a baby being rescued by its family. Period. I however saw something a little different. When I viewed the video, I first saw a family closely watching over its young, but from a distance. No helicopter parenting in the elephant world! They did not step into action until it was clear that that the calf was in distress and could not manage on its own resources. Even when they did come to the rescue, the adult elephants did something interesting. They first created a barrier between the swift river current and the young elephant, allowing the baby to regain its composure and strength and then try to get out of the river. When this was still a task too daunting for the baby, the adults guided and pushed it from behind. Eventually the young elephant made it out of the river on its own steam with the loving support of its elders. What a beautiful life lesson for all of us.

As parents, it is always a tough call, but one we really need to consider. When do we swoop in, without question, and rescue our young? When do we guide them through difficult times but let them do the work themselves? And when do we back off all together and let them navigate on their own? There is no quick and easy answer but making the right call is critical to our children’s ultimate success in life. We do know that being able to tolerate discomfort is a wonderful life trait. We also know that a child really does feel accomplished when they are able to get through something challenging on their own. When we step in and do things for our children or always fix things for them, we are not only depriving them of a chance to learn but taking away the opportunity to develop a hardiness that will only serve them well as they grow.

Pushing our children to do some things on their own doesn’t mean throwing them into the deep end of the pool and hoping they swim. As parents we must preview, scaffold and support to help ensure our children are successful. We should let our instincts be our guide but must keep in mind that stopping our children from experiencing stress is not in their best interests. We can’t, nor should we try, to keep the storms away but we can give them the tools they will need to sail even the roughest waters.


Marie Bates