Here’s Why We Do Hard Things WITH Our Kids

Here's Why We Do Hard Things *WITH* Our Kids // jessconnell.com

Doing hard things is admired in many circles.

Decide to run a marathon, get your MBA, do a DIY remodel of an old house, or move into an RV and traverse America in a year, and people will fawn over it. Sometimes you can even get a reality TV show doing stuff like that. People are, generally, impressed by others who take on large tasks and complete them.

We often pull back from this attitude, though, when it involves our children. In fact, we all kind of collectively grimace when we see someone asking their kids to do something *we* deem “too hard.”

It seems too burdensome to not only do hard things ourselves, but to do them alongside our children, coaching and parenting them, while also reining ourselves in.

And it is hard. REALLY hard.

Harder than doing hard things alone.

And maybe that’s the exact reason we should do it.

WE STARTED HIKING– WITH THE KIDS
Doug and I have been hiking together since our early days of dating. And on the rare occasions when we’ve gotten away together, just the two of us, we would almost always take time to hike as a couple.

But we were under the impression that kids couldn’t do real hikes.

Or at least, little kids.

Last fall, we took our family (including 2-year-old Theo) for a 3.5 mile hike, and he completed almost all of it, which was awesome! (He got a piggy back for the last half mile or so.)

In May, for Doug’s birthday, we took the kids to Mt. Rainier, and Theo blew us away when (now 3 years old) he hiked nearly SEVEN miles. And toward the end, there was a good bit of “I can’t do this mama!”, BUT: he did it all! On his own two feet.

And he was beaming with pride at the end of it.

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After seeing what he could do, and what we could do as a family, Doug and I began talking about doing a long multi-day backpacking trip with the kids. I was getting excited…

ATTITUDE EXPOSURE ON THE 10-MILE HIKE
Everything changed, though, when we did our next test hike. We carried packs; we went a longer distance. We wanted to see– can our 3 year old do this? What is our average speed as a family? Can our big kids carry a moderate amount of weight for a full day?

We chose a loop trail that had a shorter track, in case it was too much.

It turned out NOT to be too much for 3-year-old Theo. He impressed us all, and passed the test with flying colors. He went the full 10.7 miles.

But it turned out to be too much for his 36-year-old mama.

My anger flared, specifically toward my oldest (14 year old) son, in ways that are shameful. I was belligerent and combative– calling him out again and again with my words, attitude, and tone. (***Note: he has read this & gave his permission for me to share it.***)

The whole drive home, though I was proud of my kiddos for completing the whole hike, I felt humiliated and defeated.

“There’s no way we can do the long multi-day thru-hike. We can’t do it because of ME.”

What a failure! Instead of encouraging my kids in something hard, I berated and belittled. He’d probably never want to hike again.

Ugh.

So, at some point on the drive home, I turned down the music and spoke to the whole family. I asked for all their forgiveness, and his, specifically. “This is why we all need Jesus… Mama too.”

But I still felt like such a failure. There’s no way we can do this together. Like that old show’s British gameshow host would say: “I AM the weakest link.

I WANTED TO DITCH THE BACKPACKING TRIP

So Doug’s heart was still in it, but mine was not. I felt like if we did any more difficult backpacking than easily-doable day hikes, I would be exposed. Pushed to the edge. Perpetually defeated.

More foundational than that, I just didn’t want to be the source of any more damage or wounds in my precious son’s heart. Ultimately though, as we talked it through, I realized that by advocating for us to stop doing difficult hikes so my attitude wouldn’t be pushed to the max,

what I was saying was, “it’s fine for that stuff to BE there in my heart; I just don’t want to have it excavated and shown to the people around me.”

The truth was, I just wanted to avoid exposure. 

And that’s not a Christian attitude. If it’s IN me, coming out, I’m merely seeing the spillage of what’s in my soul’s “cup.”

So… in the days that followed, I did the hard, relational work to talk through these things with our son. It was hard, and painful, and I felt very exposed, many times over.

…so this is why people don’t write much about parenting teens…

IT IS HARD TO BE SEEN and KNOWN.

It is just HARD, isn’t it?

To have those ugliest things about us exposed and KNOWN to people we love? To hurt them in deep ways you know they’ll remember? To potentially even (because we live with flesh and blood who don’t always phrase everything exactly in the least-painful, most-perfect ways) have our sin and hurts and failures thrown back in our face?

It’s so much easier to stay in the shadows and feel like we’re doing OK… but that OK is (in many ways) a falsehood. The stuff is still IN the ‘cup.’

THE POOP IN THE CUP OF MILK.

So, Ethan and I talked. It went something like this:

E: Maybe we just shouldn’t do harder hikes. It makes us both say and do things that hurt each other.

Me: That does seem to be true. It seems like it would be easier to stop– to me, too. That’s my natural inclination.

It’s like this: we both have cups. Our cups can look clean, like they have pure white, ice cold milk in them. But the truth is, we’re Christians who still have our flesh with us. So, in addition to milk, we have poop in our cups. You can’t see it most of the time, because it settles down and everything looks all clean and nice and the smell is hidden deep down in. But the germs and the stink are really still there. When you and I hike, and I say things that hurt you, or you do things to your brothers and sisters that hurt them, that’s really just the reality of our cups getting bumped. It means that what’s deep inside comes up to the surface.

And sometimes that means we get splattered with each other’s poop.

Suddenly, we start to SEE and SMELL the poop that was there all along. The poop didn’t START being there because the cup was bumped. It was already there. The bumping just exposed the reality that our cups aren’t only filled with the purest, whitest milk. There’s poop inside, too.

E: Yeah. Hmm.

Me: I don’t know if I want to do harder hikes, either. I just told Daddy that I don’t. I hate hurting you. I don’t want to say things that make you feel rotten.

But I know one thing: stopping hiking won’t change what’s in my cup. That stuff still needs work, whether I see that it’s there or not.

E: OK. I can see that. Hmm.

It didn’t change our minds immediately.

But we kept doing practice hikes. On those hikes, I worked not to give in to the easy “pressure release valve” of letting off steam by criticizing my kids. (Ugh, that’s really embarrassing to write. But it’s true, so I’m leaving it.)

MY SELF-CONTROL GREW, BUT I STILL BLEW IT SOMETIMES.

On practice hikes and bleacher runs from then on, things (mostly) went well. I reined myself in, and worked to be an encourager and to notice the good. We made a lot of good memories this summer, and we all grew in our abilities to do really hard things with a mostly good attitude.

I would love to be able to say that I increasingly matured toward Christlikeness and never yelled at him/the other kids again.

But that’s not true.

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WE DID THE BIG 12-DAY BACKPACKING TRIP 

In fact, we had our biggest fight ever– a yelling, tear-filled ugly mess of a fight (on both our parts)– in one of the most beautiful places on earth, in the snow and boulder fields on our way up to the Panhandle Gap on the Wonderland Trail, a 95-mile loop around Mt. Rainier.

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We were on day 6 of our trip– both working about as hard as we could possibly imagine…

  • going uphill
  • both carrying serious weight
  • coaching the 3-year-old so he could avoid stumbling
  • about a mile into 11.3 miles– our highest-mileage of the trip
  • helping the 3-year-old across mountain streams
  • interacting with one another as a family, trying to NOT let off steam toward the family members we have less “easy” relationships with

… and a couple of bad choices later, we were in the middle of the angriest conversation we’d ever had, for which we’d both feel great conviction and sorrow over the rest of the day.

My growth in this area has been more like 2 steps forward… stumble back and fall on your stinking face. 

Angry, we both sat down. But we knew we had to work through it and keep going. We had to talk it out (in between heaving breaths and pushes uphill). Explain our thinking. Work to understand each other’s perspectives. Resolve our misunderstanding. Ask for forgiveness. Give forgiveness. Receive forgiveness. Work to smile at each other again.

It wasn’t easy. Working through hard stuff isn’t.

But I think it was better than either of us pretending that that stuff isn’t there on a normal day when we’re sitting on the couch. 

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See, that’s the thing: the hike wasn’t what MADE us yell at each other. It simply exposed tendencies that were there all along.

  • It exposed his tendency to do the thing that set me off (which isn’t the point of this article, so it’s not worth clarifying beyond that)
  • It exposed my tendency to respond hastily
  • It exposed my tendency to assume the worst about his motives and thinking
  • It exposed his tendency to overinflate his actual hurt
  • It exposed my tendency to badger and judge him before actually hearing him out
  • It exposed both of our tendencies to want to shut down and quit rather than working through things.

These same things exist every day, when we’re sitting on the couch watching Amazing Race. On a smaller scale, in a location with less grandeur, we are still apt to do these same exact things. We just don’t always get to see it so clearly.

Going on the hike didn’t create these things; it merely excavated them and allowed us to see them with dazzling clarity.

And I’m thankful for that. The hard thing– backpacking around Mt. Rainier– exposed deep, true things about us. Things that it’s very very hard to see and to own up to, but that we NEED to see and own up to.

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It is actually really good for us humans to see the reality of just how rotten we are. How much we need God to change us.

Otherwise, on an average day, we can look in the mirror and see our pure-white cup of milk and think we’re mostly doing OK.

HE WAS THE ONE WHO WANTED TO CONTINUE

Fast-forwarding a couple days, we considered quitting the hike. (For a lot of reasons– not primarily having anything to do with this.) Doug and I discussed it together in hushed tones, first. Then we pulled in the kids and asked them to consider it over the remainder of our afternoon hike that day.

That night, more than any of our other kids, it was Ethan who convinced me that we should continue. He didn’t want to give up.

He saw the value and beauty in this hard thing we were doing; and he helped me to see it, too. 

And there was such wisdom in his counsel. 

  • We are better as a family for having taken it on, and finished it, than we would have been had we never done it, or had we given up.
  • We’re stronger in bodies, and stronger in relationships.
  • We had some of our favorite days of hiking after deciding to stick it out.
  • We are each better for seeing ourselves as we really are.

SO WILL WE DO MORE BACKPACKING TRIPS?

It’s one of the first things people asked us, after exclaiming their joy that we were actually still alive. (No joke, we actually had a lot of people say that.) Soon after that sigh of relief, though, was:

“So would you ever do it again?”

And even that first week, I could say- “yes, I think we would.” But now, a month out, I can say– “definitely, we would.” We plan to do more backpacking… not in these last two months of THIS pregnancy… but yes, we plan to do more.

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WHY DO WE DO HARD THINGS *WITH* OUR KIDS?

Even more than the hiking (which may or may not be your cup of tea), why take on big challenges alongside our children? Why not wait til they’re out of the house? Or until they’re all teens (which — not incidentally– will never be a stage we neatly fit into, but I digress…)? Or just save the hardest things for us adults to do alone together?

One reason (there are many!) why we value this is because it pulls off the masks. It enables us to see them, and them to see us, all as we really are.

Because even though it’s really hard, and even though the poop in our cups got exposed and splattered, we see value in choosing to not just do hard things on our own… but alongside them… so we can all grow stronger together. 

 

IN THE COMMENTS, PLEASE SHARE: When have you seen something HARD produce GOOD things in the life of your family?

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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast (momonpurpose.com). I write and wrangle kids.

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34 Responses

  1. Kami Crawford says:

    Jess, this is gold right here. Thank you for sharing this and exposing yourself. I realize when I see my sin/brokeness/poop it is a gift. It allows me and gives me an opportunity to REST in the gospel. “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” Tim Keller. But if we never see the poop or maybe just get a whiff of it now and then we don’t have the opportunity to learn how to REST in this gospel. We get good at covering up and getting strong on our own merit. It’s such a trap and one I fall into every day. Thank you for reminding me why I do hard things and especially with my family. I feel like you and I could sit down and talk for hours about this. But for now I just wanted to say thank you for exposing yourself and reminding me that I can do that to because I’m not saved by covering up my poop. :)

    Ps I’m proud of you for doing this hike with your kids. I for one know that its not easy but its so worth it.

    • Jess Connell says:

      Thanks. And I love the explicit statement of the Gospel from Tim Keller. Thanks for adding that to the convo.

      “I’m not saved by covering up my poop.” < ----- This right here!!! And.... I wish we COULD just sit down and talk for hours about this. :) Maybe a Skype call sometime...

    • Ben says:

      That’s great. I hadn’t heard of the day 8 thing. We’ve had those moments. Can’t wait to debrief the whole think with you guys soon. – ben

      • Jess Connell says:

        Tune in, starting Monday (Oct 3)… I’ll be sharing about our trip, one day at a time… journal entries & pics. A few videos, in the later days of the trip, but we (so far) have lost all the videos from our first 5 days.

  2. shannon bradbury says:

    Thank you for sharing and being so vulnerable. Hard things expose the ugly in my heart, so true!!. And I’m proud of you for working it out with your son and not blaming him. You are so brave to take on such a challenge being pregnant.

  3. I don’t even know what to say! Just thank you for writing something so challenging, real, and transparent–and for sharing those awesome pictures. I loved your milk illustration!

  4. Laura says:

    I cried my way through this post! It resonated so much with me, and my relationship with my oldest son. We are at logger-heads ALL the time and we say the very most hurtful things to each other. My heart feels so bruised and I know his does too. It’s encouraging to hear that we’re not alone, but also that there is a way through the poopy mess.

    • Jess Connell says:

      A friend and I were just writing back and forth about this… she is in you & I’s same shoes.

      Here’s what I shared with her:
      “Thanks for sharing this with me. There is such shame in this particular sin… but there’s really shame in ALL sin.

      I am working still on reining in my tongue… self-control comes most often when I truly, desperately want to be ruled by the Spirit rather than by my flesh… when I want to please and glorify God rather than pleasing and glorifying myself and my ways.

      As the speaker at our marriage retreat said this weekend, “You can’t walk north and south at the same time.”

      We can’t be simultaneously pleasing the Spirit and pleasing our flesh. SO I need to see this thing as the wicked, wicked sin that it is… sin that defiles me and wounds the people around me… but ultimately… sin that displeases and crucified Christ. I need to SEE rightly. And I need that every day. I can’t grow callous to the wickedness of this.

      THEN…
      well…
      I have to DO the things that feed the Spirit in me, and DON’T do the things that feed the flesh, so that my stupid, strong, self ward, want-my-waying flesh begins to STARVE.

      THEN…
      in those moments when I so desperately want to give in to what Scripture says is a “fit of anger” (in a sin list in 1 Cor I think? — listed alongside Orgies and Sorcery), I will be equipped to fight sin with the strength of the Spirit… and yet I will still have to FIGHT.

      It still won’t be easy. But it can get easiER.

      This is what I’m currently doing… what I’ve been doing… but what I’m more serious about doing, NOW, than ever before.

      So I’m making myself read my Bible. I’m making myself meditate on the Gospel more regularly. MY need for it.

      I’m forcing the confessions out of my mouth to my kids, NAMING my sins as sin, rather than justifying it or calling it a “weakness” or “struggle”. And I’m calling myself out whenever appropriate (for prayer, at home fellowship… on this blog… etc).

      This is too serious, too insidious, too combustible… it will wreck every relationship in my life, and wreck the future decades of relationship we have ahead of us, if I do not fight right now to let the Spirit grow increasingly in control of my life, heart, and choices, and to starve the flesh so that it has less and less and less control of my life, heart, and choices.

      BUT NO, it’s not easy. And YES it is easy for us to feel shame.

      I find that the only thing that takes the sting of that shame away is open and honest and full confession of my sin– first to God, then to the people I’ve yelled at and yelled in front of, and then (as I’m able) to everyone else so that no one can be under the impression that I’m not a wicked person tempted to fits of anger.

      I’m praying for you right now, that you will be encouraged and strengthened and that God Himself will help you to form those words of confession your soul longs for, and that you will find HIs mercy and grace healing for your heart. He is so so so good to us, and He makes it so easy for us, amidst the hard. There is such FREEDOM in turning to the One who washes our sins and separates them from us, as far as the east is from the west.

      We don’t have to hide in the dark, shameful closet of sin and feel as if there’s no way out. There is a way out. It’s through open confession of sin and a continual fight to let the Spirit have greater and greater influence and control in how we walk each day.

      I can’t walk both north and south at the same time. So if I’m supposed to be going north but realize I’m not, then I have to stop where I’m at, recognize that I’m walking south, and turn northward. Even if I fall 80 times, I have to keep orienting myself toward NORTH. Reminding myself what NORTH is, confess/agree that I’m walking south, and revel in the fact that God will help me walk North. Then my steps have to turn that way.

      If I say I want to go north, but my feet keep walking south, then I’m deceiving myself at some point along the way.

      One of these things is true:
      * I’m not seriously taking to heart the direction I’m walking
      * I don’t actually care which direction I’m going, I just want to go the way I want to go.
      * I don’t have a good sense of direction and don’t actually know the way North.
      * I want to sound like I’m going in the right (harder) way, but actually go the easier way.

      But once I come to grips with the fact that I can’t walk both north (in the Spirit) and south (in the flesh) at the same time, then each time I realize that I’ve stumbled backwards and/or fallen, I have a new decision:

      * Am I going to admit that I’m walking south?
      * which way am I going to set my feet NOW?
      * Whose compass/map am I going to live by?”

  5. Sandy says:

    Jess, EVERY time you write something, anything my heart is touched in deep meaningful ways. Your words become a sharp pointed pitchfork plunged deep into the hardpan of my rock encrusted soul. I allowed someone’s words over two years ago, spoken in anger and without good intentions, to throw me off track of God’s purpose for my life. My milk has been churned, stirred, and shelved so long that it doesn’t even resemble pure white milk. It looks deceivingly more like chocolate milk…which everyone knows is more delicious than white milk…unless it’s not really chocolate. I’m dumping my cup today and sincerely asking God to forgive me for the last few years of bitterness and anger that I’ve clung to. (Must my eyes flood with tears and my chest heave with sobs as I confess my sin to God and you and an overgrowing cloud of witnesses?) There’s a whole new chapter opening in our lives now. I think I’ll call it “God’s got this.” Thanks for being so transparent and helping me see myself and my sin.

    • Jess Connell says:

      Oh man. This is so encouraging.

      It is very humbling to me to consider that (in my fear, before the article was published), I felt nervous and scared of what people would think. (STILL SUCH A SELFISH PERSPECTIVE!!)

      And here you are, showing me, how God can use it when we just own up to what we really are. Thanks for YOUR honesty, Sandy!

  6. Bethany says:

    Oh, Jess, my sister and I *just* finished our Skyble study for the week where we discussed what you described as poop and milk, then I immediately checked Feedly and read this. Bam. And bam. :)

    Marriage shows us what selfish sinners we are. Then parenting comes along and hangs it up in flashing lights and neon signs. We’re all a work in progress, all thankful for God’s patience, forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

  7. Jena says:

    Thank you for this insightful and hopeful post. Sometimes just changing the way you think about something really changes everything. This post has done that for me.
    I too have often felt so frustrated and shameful about things I say to my kids and the “mommy fits” I can throw especially when we are “doing hard things” together. This gives me courage to keep doing the hard things because it grows us as a family. The only way you can make a muscle stronger is by pushing it to failure because then your body knows it has to develop more muscle tissue. When I “loose it” with my kids because I am doing something good and worthwhile the only thing to do is repent and try harder and know it is part of the growing process.

    • Jess Connell says:

      Wonderful word picture here:

      “The only way you can make a muscle stronger is by pushing it to failure because then your body knows it has to develop more muscle tissue.”

      Thanks for sharing! That’s right on. We get stronger, ironically, by exposing and being able to (with pinpoint accuracy!) identify where we are weak.

  8. Amanda Banry says:

    Thank you for sharing!

  9. Nadine Brown says:

    I would love to know what sleeping bags for the kids and tents you used. We would love to get into backpacking with our family.

  10. Jamie Butts says:

    I’d say this is my fave post of yours ever but I have lots. Thankful for this. 💜 Thanks for using your blog well.

    • Jess Connell says:

      Thanks. That is very encouraging.

      • Jamie Butts says:

        Thanks for your e-mail! I was just thinking I should have told you on the e-mail the blog I realized I thought the most about, due to my everyday need of it. I need to dig it up again. When you wrote about visiting a friend, and how to keep her kitchen clean, she was just kind of always in there, happily tidying up here, wiping up here, it was easier to get on top of kind of all-day-long instead of saving a big pile up for the end of the day. That really helped me. :) Don’t worry – a lot of the more important posts than kitchen-cleaning inspire me, too, but I swear I think of that every week! :)

        • Jess Connell says:

          I actually JUST reread that one today and am going to republish it here on this blog in a couple months. It kicked me around too and has been a good motivator for me when I get lazy.

          -Jess

  11. Kondwani says:

    The hike is inspiring and the photos beautiful. I think there are too many people who say you *can’t* do those kind of things with children, and yet what a rich and wonderful experience for them all, that will remain with them for a lifetime. Well done! (And to do so whilst pregnant – to me, that’s just amazing!)

    I have always found hiking the best time to really think and pray. Before children we used to do it as much as possible, and it was usually on the second day, after a night camping in the wild, that we’d make progress. I think there is something just incredible about being out in God’s creation.

    Thanks for being so honest about the challenge with your boy. And thanks to your boy for being happy for you to share. We haven’t got to that point in relationships yet, but I have no doubt that we will one day. I love how you pressed through, kept going, kept persevering, kept not hiding from it. That is something of eternal value.

    Bless you

    • Jess Connell says:

      Thanks for that encouragement!

      We had one child (Moses, 6) who, upon arriving back, when someone asked him how the hike went, answered, “I have nothing good to say about it.” LOL!

      That same child has since seemed to have a complete change of heart, because when I asked him about it last week, he said, “it was great.” And proceeded to list off a bunch of things he liked about it, and how he was proud of us for finishing it.

      It definitely surprised ME how capable they all were, and how much each child stepped up to various tasks/responsibilities. I watched each child work through potential attitude-bombs and come out on the other side resolute and perseverant. I had no idea, when we started, how much CHARACTER growth I could watch unfold, right before my eyes, over the course of 12 days.

      And yes… I was blown away at how many opportunities we were given to MARVEL at God’s creative power. He is so amazing and I loved getting to see, in depth, one pocket of the world He has made.

  12. Abigail says:

    This is beautiful, Jess. I have asked my husband to read it, because there are so many good things in it. Our relationship with our oldest son (who is 10) can be wonderful on some days and strained on others. And like you, we give in to the flesh and let hurtful things out more than we’d like. What a great reminder to walk in step with the Spirit, to be slow to anger, to be quit to forgive.

  13. Abigail says:

    Sorry: *quick* to forgive.

  14. Roxanne says:

    I loved this so much. Thank you for sharing with so much honesty, while still being respectful to your family. This really hit a chord with me and I think I’ll revisit it when I’m struggling. I’ve been following your daily entries of your hike and enjoying each one!

  15. Elaine says:

    That was way hitting my heart girl. Thank you for sharing. The family dynamics are so interesting to navigate. It’s so big when pertinent and true things come out of our mouths to share. It changes everything.

  1. September 26, 2016

    […] I shut everything off and quit writing for a while. We got outside and hiked a lot. As the summer wore on, and the pressures lifted, I realized a pivotal piece of the […]

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