Endurance, Part II: Teaching our Children Endurance

Posted on February 17, 2014 by Katherine Ruch


Life can be hard; wouldn't it be better to give our children a childhood of leisure and then when they have to face deprivation or difficulty let them deal with it as it comes?  After all, how could we ever prepare them for the kinds of trials they will face?  People can never fully be ready for some of the tragedies life might have in store.  True, much of the shaping from a trial is what happens when in the trial already, but we can prepare children with a capacity to handle hardship so that once they are in one, they have emotional resources to press in and discover God.   

As parents, we must not shield our children from having to learn endurance.  Instead we must take opportunities that surface and even create opportunities to teach our children endurance, so that when they face difficulties they will have the inner resources to weather storms.  After all, who would you rather be on a wilderness trip with:  someone who had endured an Arctic exploration with limited rations and trying temperatures, or someone who has never been out of their own living room?  We lean into people who know how to face a difficult situation, and we want our children to become adults who can endure hardship without complaining and know how to sail their boat in a storm. Just as drills in a sport prepare athletes for the games in which skills and endurance are required, we must prepare our children for all the game of life will require of them.

Some of the ways we have helped our children build endurance (and we are still in the training zone!!)  is through  hard work, strenuous physical activity, expecting a non-complaining spirit and a resourceful attitude in bothersome daily trials, regular investment in the development of skills, and coaching them through difficult life situations.

It is extremely important that we teach our children to work hard.  It is a temptation to do everything for them, but this creates an expectation of being waited on and the lack of skill to approach a difficult task, plan how to tackle it, and then carry it out in a timely fashion, and then be rewarded with the result. But we train them to do hard work by first doing it with them.  If children feel like you are trying to get out of work, they will follow your example.  Instead, they must see that we too work hard. Once we enter in and show them how to manage a difficult work project, we can now ask it of them without our help. When a truck dumps a large mountain of mulch in our driveway, my husband tells the kids to get busy with shovels and the wheelbarrow and tells them where to spread it.  All ages will work for hours and are rewarded by a job well done, a great sense of teamwork, and the surprising realization that they could do it.  Because my husband used to do it with them, now the olders can do it with the youngers and show them how to do it.

Strenuous physical activity is a great way to accompany children in their development of endurance.  My husband hikes with our children every week, and by the time the baby is not in the backpack, he must keep up with everyone else or ride on someone's back or shoulders.  (If we trek through snow, the youngest can be pulled on a sled).  Stewart always tells them, "Ruchs don't complain.  Ruchs are strong.  They endure long walks."  And the children rise to it.  They do not want to be the weak link, and they are praised for their endurance.  "Did you know that Nathanael hiked three miles today and didn't utter one complaint?" someone will say.  Every summer the older children get to go on a day hike on the Appalachian Trail with their dad.  It is a coveted rite of passage to be considered capable of accompanying them.  Nathanael was just asking the other day if we think he is ready.  Stewart responded, "It's mostly about your attitude.  I know that you are capable of doing it physically;  let's see if you will be ready to be cheerful the whole way."  This communicates the expectation but also the confidence we have that someone can be a great companion in a test of endurance. Being pleasant in strenuous activity, as well as waiting without complaining builds endurance.  We can cast a vision for our children of becoming people capable of enduring by focusing on something worthwhile.  Jesus endured by focusing on the JOY set before him.  We can help our children see that deferring pleasure is a sign of maturity.

Children learn that they actually can be hot or cold or thirsty or hungry or squashed...and be OK.  I was deeply moved to hear of some missionary neighbors of ours who have eight children and were in some financial difficulty.  They had run out of grocery money, and the children initiated, "Let's just eat two meals a day.  It will be a fun challenge to see if we can make the food we have in the house stretch until pay day!" And they did it, and had a close community experience of enduring together, what to an American is unthinkable, but really is a minor hardship when one considers what kind of hardships are faced in the rest of the world.  It also gave them a solidarity with those who do not have enough everyday over and over again.

Chores are essential to a child's developing work ethic and a healthy attitude toward tedious work. Young children can unload dishwashers, restock toilet paper in bathrooms, empty trashcans, wipe the table, sweep the floor, vacuum, dust.  Older children can do deeper cleaning, wash dishes, take out garbage, bring down laundry, do laundry (our sixteen year old does all the family laundry as her chore). At the end of the day, we have zones assigned to each child;  younger children team with an older one. They are responsible for straightening the whole zone.  When they finish their zone, they go to the other children and ask if they need help (that is because some zones get used more on some days than others).  This morning our nine year old and six year old did an hour and a half of snow shoveling, including cleaning off the cars.  After having done it multiple times with Dad, then with older siblings, now they can do it alone.  We praise them and let them know how mature they are becoming...and try to have some hot apple cider or tea ready for them when they come in frosty from the snow.

Recently, I asked my nine year old boy to clean the bathroom at some point during the day.  I was surprised when he immediately started on it.  I said, "Good job for just going for it right away and for doing such a thorough job."  He responded, "I just want to get it over with."  I assured him that even I have to approach certain tasks that way with only the reward of completion as a motivation, and that he was showing maturity by facing into a tedious task and enduring it for the reward of seeing it done.  This helps children learn that they can actually face into a difficulty, endure it, and get through it, sometimes with surprising pleasures along the way of companionship and a sense of expansion in their maturity.  It also makes them aware of what it takes to run a home and family, and much more appreciative.

BUT, it is important not to give a child a task at which he cannot succeed.  For instance, sending a child into a room that is in disastrous shape and asking her to clean it up, will probably result in tears. Even adults have trouble attacking a mess.  So you train them by doing it with them until they learn.  It is very important to take the extra time to teach your children to work when, at the beginning, it would be much easier to do it all ourselves.  If you do this over and over, eventually you will reap the reward. The other night we left our fourteen year old boy home babysitting his younger three brothers.  He heated up dinner on the stove, fed them all, put them all to bed (including the baby), washed the dishes and then straightened the whole downstairs.  If we had asked this of him before he was ready, he would have felt overwhelmed.  We now are blessed with the benefit of teaching them to work and expecting it as their contribution.  This builds endurance and a proper understanding of the life rhythms of hard work and play.

Let me be clear, building this kind of endurance in children takes endurance on the part of the parents. I find myself reminding, cajoling, making charts that sometimes work, coming up with a new system or plan that I'm sure will be more effective this time, etc.  But sticking with it through the up's and down's of successes and disappointments will bring a long term result that is beneficial for the whole family. So anything I say in this post that is a good result has behind it the wringing of hands, even the weariness of staying on top of children who naturally want to take the easy road.  Eventually, though, they do get an expectation of hard work and endurance into their cells, and then it is self-propelling because the younger children want to emulate the older ones.

Besides hard work and strenuous activity, the regular practice that sports and music provide has been a great way for us to teach our children diligence in hardship.  Discovering that not every good thing comes easily is a dear life lesson.  The delight of watching our children experience the fruit of years of investment in daily practice blesses us not just because they have skills to carry with them their whole lives, but in the process they have learned what it takes to become proficient at something--hard work and persistence, in a word, endurance.

We don't always have to create opportunities for our children to learn endurance, however, as life often provides unwanted opportunities.  Children will watch how we endure trials and be schooled by it.  Do they see us calling out to God in a financial difficulty or health crisis and drawing on God's Word?  Or do they see us self-piteous and self-indulgent with our reactions, angry and fatalistic ("of course this would happen to us!").  When our children face trials of their own, it is crucial that we walk them through the opportunity to be transformed in the midst of it.  Our oldest son had years of learning struggles.  He would cry almost everyday with disappointment and frustration.  He didn't understand why learning was so easy for his siblings;  he was embarrassed to be in a group and not be able to read or write well.  I would sit with him and cry with him but also have to help him look to God for the work God was doing in the midst of the trial.  My husband and I would say to him over and over, "For some reason, God is allowing this trial for you because it is essential in shaping you for who he has called you to be.  You must trust him and look for his grace in the middle of it."  Now we are beyond so much of that struggle, and I can see some of the fruit of the years of endurance for him.  He is such an empathetic person, able to imagine someone else's pain.  Because he was a late reader and had to listen to audiobooks for hours, he has been shaped by story and is uncommonly good at grasping metaphor.  These trials have also kept him humble, considering that he has so many other things that could make him proud.

One of the greatest difficulties with watching our children have to endure a trial is that we so keenly want to spare them pain.  We would not be good parents if it did not make us ache to see our children suffering. This always takes us deeper with the Lord ourselves to have to cry out for his mercy and his wisdom.  But it also stretches our faith to believe that they belong to God, that his love for them is even greater than ours. Some of my children have had to endure things that I so deeply wished I could have spared them.  The Lord has reminded me that that will be a part of their story, and that place in their souls where they are distressed will be a place where they can experience the love and healing of the Lord.  This will be a part of their journey that I cannot control.  I can pray and be there to process with them and love them, but they will have to walk it out over the course of their lives.  And that is something that we say to them, encouraging them that we are confident that God can use all that we surrender to him to shape us into complete, mature, and beautiful people.

Reading stories to our children of people (including children) who have endured hardship and been virtuous in the midst of it, fills their imagination with models of who they want to emulate and gives them hope in their own trials.  Our family has been listening to the series by Ralph Moody, Little Britches and the several after that.  These are autobiographical about a boy whose father trained him to ranch and then died when his son was age 11, leaving him to provide for his family.  We have listened to these stories because they are beautifully written and spin a great yarn, but the side benefit is that they have provided perspective for our children on how resourceful a child can be and how hard one can work when the situation requires it.  Our children realize that they have a pretty easy life when compared to Ralph Moody.  Biographies are often a great resource for stories of endurance because we get a perspective on the lives of these people that they did not even have during their lives, and it reminds us that we, too, cannot see the full arc of our lives and how all of it will fit together.

If we are ever in a time of trouble, we want people next to us who have endured hardship, have withstood the test, and can then help us do the same.  As we develop endurance ourselves, may we be coaching our own children to be those who can face a storm, know how to steer the boat, and find Jesus on the waves.