Setting Your Child Up for Success in School and Life: The Swinging Bridge

There’s a reason why so many stories involve journeys –walking through woods like Goldilocks, trying to get home after the Trojan Wars like Odysseus, or charging forward like the Knights of King Arthur to fulfill a quest.  As characters travel, they meet challenges. Through these tough spots, they grow and change in ways that lead to success; they are wiser at the end. 

The stories of our lives also unfold along the paths we walk each day.

From the earliest days, school serves as a safe and gradual path for children to walk, starting on the firm ground of home base and moving, stepwise, towards a new home they will establish as adults.  In the youngest years, this path involves a bit of a leap for both parents and children as they learn to trust others to teach and care for the child. Children begin early to realize that they have responsibilities to others outside their home as well as to their families, and begin to obey teachers, cooperate with friends and function as a part of a supportive class.

Just as in our favorite tales, challenges arise along the way. As children overcome them, they become stronger and more resilient. They learn to view themselves as capable and develop the skills they’ll need as adults. Forget classic literature – just think about video games for a minute. When Mario jumps a large gap or defeats an enemy like Bowser, he learns skills and earns more lives, more playing time to fulfill his quest to rescue Princess Peach. One reason children enjoy such games is that they get to succeed, grow stronger and live to fight another day.

What if there were no gaps for Mario to jump and no enemies to smash? Would he grow and develop if his path were always smooth and easy? If he marches unobstructed through levels K-12, what happens when he gets to level 13, and all the difficulties are there as in the original game? He has had no practice and has not developed the skills he needs to accomplish the quest – and the journey itself has been no fun at all.

No child’s path through grades PreK through 12 is without challenges. Just as a path through the woods may open onto a scary swinging bridge, the path through school will lead to shifting friend groups, endless studies and sports at which they cannot win. Facing these challenges is scary, and children tend to respond emotionally. They feel the wind blowing that swinging bridge beneath them, and often wish to avoid the difficulties in any way they can – dropping classes, isolating themselves to avoid hurt feelings, quitting the team or changing schools.   

In such times, loving parents have a critical responsibility to stay off the swinging bridge. While listening to children’s emotional pain is difficult, supporting them when they are upset means staying on firm ground, resisting the urge to remove appropriate challenges, and problem solving with them as to how to handle their stresses. 

A wise principal at another classical Christian school once shared with me her best advice for helping parents raise strong, independent adults. When children are unhappy, don’t let them make you unhappy.  Rather, provide a base of wisdom and stability for them by staying off the swinging bridge of their emotions. Equip them to meet and overcome challenges with confidence.