Our neighbors had a slip-and-slide party for their daughter’s eighth birthday a few weeks ago. And, as her friends covered themselves with shaving cream and joyfully careened across the slip and slide on their backs and stomachs, they passed my son and daughter carefully crawling on the slick surface and questioning what the whole activity was even about.
My wife and I shared guilty glances as we tried to direct Grady and Patchen to run up and fling themselves haphazardly like the other kids. This was our fault. We haven’t gone a day without nagging our kids repeatedly to be careful. From our lawn chairs, we were aching for them to do the opposite.
Now is the time when I typically stretch this extended metaphor to the max – when I ask everyone to acknowledge that slipping and sliding in my neighbor’s front lawn is on par with taking creative risks or embracing the unknown in the classroom, when I ask everyone to acknowledge that parents and adults in children’s lives can either urge their kids to choose safety or push them toward danger and the inevitable rewards that will follow.
But the truth is this is an oversimplification, and we all know it. The truth is I’m glad my kids are careful. Most of the time the porch or the ground or the concrete stairs are the surfaces that are slippery, and I want them to shuffle along and avoid any and all broken arms and head injuries they can, no matter how fun it would be to go sliding around. Quite frankly, I’m not sure how my mother dealt with the litany of horrible injuries and the resultant trips to the emergency room my childhood of unsupervised freedoms and ridiculous adventures caused.
The truth is, I really just want my son and my daughter to distinguish between danger and discomfort, for them to realize they are safe and to overcome their discomfort in the name of fun or learning, or honing whatever craft they are working on (even if it is slip and slide).
There is so much to be said for discomfort: when we overcome it, we feel proud; when we experience it as a group, it unites us; and when we take healthy preemptive action to avoid it, it can be a mark of our maturity.
With these benefits in mind, there are so many ways to use discomfort for positive outcomes:
• We can remind students of how uncomfortable they naturally felt the last time they neglected to complete or edit or give their best on a project and we can do it with enough time that students can take positive action to avoid similar discomfort in the future
• We can embrace hardships like weather or accidents or mistakes that cause minor discomfort and make them part of our collective stories and laugh at them when they are over.
• We can point out shortcomings or failures in a way that stress to students that the process or actions they took fell short not them personally.
• We can continue to take risks, like sharing our creations or trying new techniques or asking questions when we are confused or attempting impossible tasks or making ourselves vulnerable, knowing full well that discomfort will be a bi-product of our actions.
While I am a firm believer in the educational benefits of embracing discomfort, I understand that it only works when students and families feel safe. I would never ask my kids to fling themselves down a wet piece of plastic I didn’t think was safe, and I know families would never encourage students to take risks if our staff had not taken such care to establish a safe environment for sharing and risk-taking at our school.
When CAPS was just an idea in a few educators’ minds, we sat down and wrote a set of core values. The first on our list involved providing a safe atmosphere where risk-taking and the possibility of failure (and all of the discomfort that may bring) are not just tolerated but actually welcomed as a natural consequence of “shooting high.”
With that in mind, I feel extremely grateful to all the parents and guardians at CAPS – people who trust me to push or urge or challenge your students, often beyond their comfort zones, and to back away when I sense their discomfort is reaching unhealthy levels. Furthermore, I whole-heartedly appreciate feedback when I am misreading a situation, when a student’s discomfort has reached unhealthy levels. It takes real trust to watch your kids be scared or disappointed. But, as my wife and I found out from that fateful slip and slide, it’s equally difficult to watch them fail to try.