Why I Want My Kids to Be in Pain

I used to think it was a parent’s job to protect their kids from pain. Now I know, it’s a parent’s job to point their kids in the direction of the pain…


I failed my daughter.

It’s the end of August, we’re in a new town with new schools, and we’re walking toward the building where she’ll begin kindergarten in three short days. It’s our first back-to-school orientation in this new place, so we’re figuring it out as we go. And, as I look around at the converging crowd, I see moms and dads and grandparents with little human beings in tow, and all the big people are carrying big bags full of bulk Kleenex, gallon-sized Ziploc bags, and vats of hand sanitizer.

I, in contrast, am empty-handed.

And my daughter is observant.

She looks up at me with concern in her eyes and asks, “Daddy, why are all the other kids bringing their stuff to school today?”

I’m tempted to respond, “Well, Sweetie, because those bags are bigger than you, and it will be impossible for you to carry it into your first day of school all by yourself along with your big backpack and the big lump in your throat, so every other parent is doing the completely obvious thing and getting the delivery out of the way ahead of time. You see, the other parents are smarter and probably just plain better than me. Also, though you will already feel lonely and alienated enough on your first day at a new school in a new town, I wanted to make sure you feel even more different than the other kids.”

Then, I imagine handing her a blank check for the years of therapy she’s going to need.

What I actually say is, “Sweetie, this is all new to us, so we’re making it up as we go. We’ll figure it out, though.” Meanwhile, the little kid inside of me who remembers what it was like to be on a first-day-of-school-in-a-new-town playground is off crying in some corner of my heart and quietly hating me for my incompetence.

After all, isn’t it a father’s job to protect his kids from all pain and suffering?

A Crappy Hope

I’m not sure where we get this idea that success is equivalent to the absence of pain and it’s our responsibility to banish all suffering. And I’m not sure where we get the idea it’s a parent’s job to make sure their kids are always comfortable and without dis-ease.

But, boy, we sure have gotten it.

Myself included. And I’m a psychologist. I sit with the pain of people every day. I know intellectually and professionally that pain is both unavoidable and totally redeemable. Not something to be avoided but something to be confronted. Yet, somewhere in my heart, I secretly cling to the belief that my job is to shelter my kids from all of it. I stubbornly hope my life will be void of suffering.

It’s a crappy hope.

It makes your heart seize up every time the inevitable happens. It makes your gut clench up every time you fail to prevent your own pain or protect your loved ones from their own pain.

An Essential Fact

Three days later, my daughter and I are sitting at the breakfast table with her older brothers. It’s the first day of school and everyone has on their confident faces and their bravery has me in awe. When out of nowhere, my oldest son looks at my daughter and says, “You just remember this today: You are awesome. You are you. You are Caitlin Ann Flanagan. And no one can change that.”

For one morning, at a first-day-of-school breakfast table, her brother acts like the parent I want to be when I grow up. He reminds her of the good thing she is, and he reminds her no amount of pain can alter that one bit. That’s not a hope. That’s not something to believe in. That’s a fact, and it’s a fact worth learning.

Even if it takes a lifetime.

A Parent’s Job

A parent’s job is, ultimately, not to protect their kids from pain, though of course we try to do so desperately and of course we grieve the failures. But no, pain is inevitable. Our job isn’t to help them avoid it at all costs; our job is to help them move toward it, walk through it, and, if they invite us, to be with them in it.

Our job is to remind them: pain is like a really good mirror—when you face into it, you get to see who you are, what you’re made of, and why you’re here.

So, I watch my daughter take in what her brother has said. I watch her confident face get a little more joyful. And his reminder to her becomes a reminder to me of what she did as we left that back-to-school orientation three days earlier…

We’re walking out of the school with a crowd of now also empty-handed parents, when she begins putting her thoughts into song, as she so often does. And in a beautiful, cracking, lilting, childlike falsetto, she declares, with her arms wide open,

“This is my world. This is my world. This, is my world.”

Yep. That’s our job. To remind our kids, regardless of the pain, regardless of the mess, regardless of what anyone does or does not do to you, this is your world. You can be fully in it, you can be fully you, and you can embrace it.

With arms wide open.

And, when we forget, it’s our job to let our kids remind us.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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27 thoughts on “Why I Want My Kids to Be in Pain

  1. Ah, Kelly! Thank goodness no one makes a bubble suit for our kiddos because you are absolutely right that what we do often want for our kids is for them to float through life without pain. But it’s not possible, it isn’t reasonable, and it isn’t even the benevolent wish we think it is for them. Life without those moments or days of pain, sadness, upset, worry, and anger that we all experience would not have the rich depth to our days and weeks of joy, excitement, gratitude, and contentment.
    It isn’t our job to merely protect our kids; it is our job to prepare them so that they know they may always walk fiercely through a world that is plenty big and wild but no more than a match for all the wonderful things they already are.

    • Right on, Shel. My younger son asked me on the first day of school what he could do to get rid of his nervous tummy. I tried to come up with something but ultimately said, “Nothing, you just go through it, come out the other side in one piece, and start to trust that’s how it works.” He actually seemed kind of satisfied by that!

  2. Your blog has meant so much to me this summer. Our journeys have been very similar, as our family has relocated too (from Australia to Canada), and now, my kids are starting school (again!) in brand new places and spaces. They’ve had their share of pain in their short lives as we have been living as expats, and they’ve had to “restart” a few times. I can honestly say that they are more resilient and ‘alive’ because of it. Your son gave the best “back to school” pep talk to your daughter that you could have hoped for. I am going to use it. Please thank him for me. And thanks for putting your experiences out in the world for all of us to learn from them. Happy Back to School week.

    • Kathleen, I moved 75 minutes down the road. You moved across oceans! I can’t even imagine. I take such encouragement from your experience of your kids and their resilience, though, because it helps me trust what I’m seeing in my kids, that they seem to be thriving on learning they can handle it. My best to you and yours this week, too!

  3. I realize upon reading this that we all unprepared to handle pain. Part of that comes from how our parents raised us. I tell my daughter that she cannot be anything in this world. Not only is that untrue, it also provides her with false hope. I tell her to set goals and then work hard to achieve those goals.
    Now, pain is real and ugly and its hard to just let our children go through it. I mean who wants to watch them suffer. The thing though is that life does them no favors, it will be harsh and at times unforgiving. You are right, let them experience it and as you say” regardless of the pain, this is your world, and you can embrace it.

    • Yes, Allison, I think that’s one of the big sacrifices of parenting. Watching their pain causes us pain, and yet sometimes we have to let them go through it. Of course, the meaning of compassion is to “suffer with,” so maybe that’s what’s being born in parenting.

  4. Dr. Flanagan!

    I am so glad to read this article! I am a parent educator in NC and I work with parents who are referred to us through DSS and also teens (along with individuals who plain want to come and learn). I am constantly telling my parents that NOT allowing our children to feel pain, guilt, shame… all the “negative” emotions, is more harmful than ALLOWING them to. These emotions, as you well know, are an important part in reliance and perseverance. If we don’t allow them to experience heartache, difficulties, pain…. then we are not doing our job by teaching them how to overcome them with our guidance! It’s much easier to help a child deal with disappointment in kindergarten than later on when they’ve become so overwhelmed with these feelings that they turn to drugs to deal with them. These are part of the protective factors that children and parents need to work through. AND as parents, we need to RECOGNIZE our OWN emotions and deal with them appropriately as well! I saw a billboard recently that read “A parent’s life is a child’s guidebook” That is so true. If we don’t deal with our own pain, we can’t help our children through theirs. Bravo for you! Enjoy your little one’s adventure! Don’t blink, your children’s lives will go so quickly! Don’t miss a thing!

    • Thank you for this, Jodi! I couldn’t agree with you more. The best thing we can do for our kids is learn how to face our own pain. Then we won’t transfer it to them and, indeed, we can model for them how to handle their own. Thanks for the good work you’re doing!

      • “Then we won’t transfer it to them…”
        Wow. OK, I was already on-board with the article. That gave us the “what”. This is why.

    • This is wonderful. I agree Jodi with what you said, the fleshing out of hard things in kindergarten means the sorting is already above ground for harder things later. When one son was in high school I found out a hard thing, I raced to the school, took him out of class and we walked to a coffee shop. Though the discussion was tough he remembers it as good because it was begun with grace and we’d been talking through things all his life.
      Those parents are blessed to have you to encourage them!

      • Well, thank you Grace! That’s very sweet to say! I am a widow and had to raise my two boys alone from the time they were 9 and 11. I was raised in a home of secrets and so I swore to myself that NOTHING was off limits to discuss. I have been very fortunate to have some wonderful human beings going through their life journey and including me in it! They are now 22 and 20. They didn’t have the OPTION to hide from pain. It was right in their face, nearly daily. We chose to laugh about it and learn from it. I think they taught me more than I them. I can only hope that my parents have the same experiences, as far as learning from pain. Thank you for the nice words! It makes me smile! Below are my boys from a couple of years ago. They are my pride and joy! I just had to share what resilience and perseverance can get you!

        • Oh Jodi, your story at first makes me want to cry and then, from the rest of the thoughts you share, I smile, now seeing their picture I laugh! Sorrow to joy…a good few steps walking with you in words! Thank you! Your boys look delightful! Ours are 24 down to seven, youngest five are adopted. Your story and life are inspiring! Such good thoughts for this very afternoon in my house! 🙂 Grace

  5. Dear Kelly,

    Thank you for always hitting the nail on the head with your writing, for capturing the vulnerable parts of life, for echoing my own heart. Thank you for always allowing me to enter into a place where I need to access my own world and my own pain and walk through it. I really appreciated this article. You took me back to childhood and loved your son’s “parenting” of your daughter. What a gift to be raising kids and seeing the fruit of your walk echoed in their lives and voices.

    Love the journey God has taken you on, to a new town, new kinds of work, and new opportunities. May the Lord continue to deepen your lives there and enhance your world.

    Grace. Grace. Grace to you and yours!


    • Brian, I’m so glad my heart is connecting with yours in this way! And thank you for your blessing upon our journey! More next week about redeeming our pain. : )

  6. this is SO good, kelly. thank you for sharing your wisdom (and your kids’ wisdom as well). i am a counselor/coach and my sons are now 17 and 22, yet as a parent i still experience the same feelings from time to time. (like my younger son’s first broken heart this summer.) again, thank you.

    • April, it such a good reminder that our kids growing up doesn’t mean we stop wanting to protect them from pain. My best to you and your son, as he makes himself whole again.

  7. Dear Kelly,

    Thank you again so much for this wonderful article. Even though I don’t have kids, it makes so much sense to me and it’s something that I have had in the back of my mind for a long time. I just wasn’t sure it was valid since I don’t have someone to “test” it on. It just seemed unreal to think that we could protect others, kids or loved ones, from pain while in this world. As I have often told my husband who sometimes becries why God didn’t just make us perfect already and without suffering, “If we are human, we are going to suffer because all the ‘stuff’ that we are made of hurts: our bodies, our hearts are things that hurt by the nature of what they are made of.” So to think that we will be able to go through life without getting hurt is not possible. It’s a great lesson we all need to learn and it’s great that we can have others who will teach us HOW to deal with the things life throws at us and still be able to come out on the other side. Brilliant!!

    Many blessings to you and your family on your new adventures!

    • Jenny, consider your hunch tested and validated! This is a tension I always experience as a therapist: rescue my clients from their pain or be with them in it. It seems, ironically, the latter is always more healing. Blessings to you, too, Jenny!

  8. You are so right. We gave our daughter enough freedom to get into a little bit of bother, but made certain we could support her and help her turn things around if necessary. It worked beautifully. She is a happy, well adjusted and responsible adult, confident enough in life to have moved 1000 miles away from where we are and start her own life four years ago. It’s what you want for your child (except the 1000 miles away part–we miss her).

  9. Another week, another great read! Thanks for the guidance Kelly, our 6yr old will be starting a new school in a new town in a few weeks once we move so this has given me some things to think about. I feel confident she’ll be fine, I shall just remember to be as grown up and all embracing as she is 😉

  10. So good! The only thing wrong with your posts is that they are too short! Though reading through comments is delightful too :).
    Our 24-year-old says that without the sorrow and suffering he’s seen in third world countries and the pain and struggle he’s walked through with us through the adoptions of his five youngest siblings he’d be a completely different person. He says he’d be proud, arrogant, lacking in compassion, selfish and clueless about the world. He is none of those things and now seeks a life of serving others with the love of Jesus and his precious wife :)! It is good to hear from a young adult child when they see that hard things have softened their soul. In the middle of it all I have worried about their own hearts. We wish they didn’t have to suffer, as you said, but joy comes. It can be found in time. It certainly inspires us to keep going when we see their life choices and who they’ve become (and how God has changed us).
    Thank you for doing that so well Kelly, inspiring your reading community and encouraging us in the hard things!
    (Ps love that your little one sings her thoughts, isn’t that the sweetest!)

  11. now that I am an adult with adult responsibilities… I see the clear difference in how I was raised (with what I’ve often considered neglectful parents) and how my boyfriend was raised…with highly involved, almost smothering, parents — I’ve somehow developed a level of independence that makes me un-afraid of take risks..I don’t feel as embarrassed as I used to as a kid…and now I’m even good at just being plain honest in certain situations…my BF on the other hand…has trouble coping with embarrassing situations, cannot make decisions very quickly or effectively, and has a lot of anxiety about failure, it’s almost paralyzing, the thought of failure pervades his work and limits his opportunities, he gives up before he’s tried sometimes, because the potential to fail or be hurt is too great … I’m not sure how much his upbringing has to do with it, but I’m wondering if it has anything to do with the prevention of “pain” or stressors in his life..

  12. Letting your kids fail, and be hurt, and then provide them a way to grow
    through it is right. But man, is it hard.
    I keep telling myself that facing adversity is healthy for human development. Frankly my biggest worry as a parent is I’m making things too comfortable. That said, I figure life itself is pretty good at dishing trauma, I might as well try to provide a safe haven to hole up when it gets rough.
    All-in-all I’ve been pleased with the people our kids are becoming. I think I will actually like them when they’re grown 😉

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