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Each day that I head over to my job at Drexel, I think about how I get to be around amazing, motivated students. That’s one of the main benefits of the career I chose.

I say that so you know that I’m on the students’ side. I respect them, and I find I’m able to avoid the, ahem, generationism that I see exhibited by some of my friends who aren’t around the 20-something set much. In other words, sure, these young kids have grown up a certain way and expect certain things, but they also have confronted bigger challenges, including financially, than most of the people my age had to deal with.

I think it’s easy for older people to pile on, but I don’t totally agree with it all. However, I do think many of them, perhaps in contrast with the experiences of their peers in other parts of the world, have been protected from significant adversity. By us, their loving parents.

For the past few summers, I have conducted a workshop at my local library about writing the college admissions essay for rising seniors.

Using prompts from the Common Application, I show these students–who, by the way, are giving up two summer nights for this endeavor–that they have multiple paths to their essay. The hero motif, that grand tale of adversity overcome, has great appeal, so many students spend their workshop time brainstorming about a personal adversity story as their way “in.”

I’m struck by the difficulty that most of them have had in defining such an event. They are aware of it too.

As I read many of these mechanically correct, tidy pieces about we-weren’t-the-best-team-but-we-won-the-big-game or at-first-I-got-a-C+-but-with-hard-work-I-got-an-A, it strikes me this is exactly how we have raised them: Not to have to want, to need, to suffer.

Sometimes, in those many dark moments that you are inevitably going to have as a parent, it makes me wonder if I’ve done the right things.

I remember an experience I had many years ago as a high school wrestling coach. One of our guys had an aching shoulder. Mind you, this kid was tough as nails and went on to be one of the best wrestlers in the state. His dad was a specialist physician. Before an early-season, high-stakes match, he gave his son an injection. Our trainer expressed concern about this, and the dad simply replied: “Do you want my son to be in pain?”

At the time, I didn’t get it.

Now I think I do. Where is the line between allowing your kids to face adversity/toughing it out and suffering? If we can take the pain away, won’t we?

Yet, without adversity at a young age, how will they shape themselves as they get older? It’s a question we must ask, but it is clouded by the over-involvement many of us have had in their lives, which means we have seen their every grimace and reaction. Every social media snub. Every missed goal. Every almost grade. How do we not step in?

I was talking to some of those smart Drexel students about this topic recently, but I struggled to voice what I wanted to say. Parents don’t wish for adversity, and in most cases, we don’t plant it in our kids’ lives. In the past, we mostly didn’t need to.

But we all know they will face plenty of difficulty at some point. And if you haven’t experienced adversity, will you be ready later on? In the story of your life, what will you have to write about?

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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5 Responses to “Can we, should we, introduce adversity, even pain?”

  1. Not only adversity is lacking but simple dexterity. The medical schools are apparently in despair that the students, even if proficient in biology, can scarcely be taught to suture because they don’t make wallets in summer camp any more. And I guess, damn few kids have been to a summer camp without wifi.

  2. Trying means struggling. Kids need a lot of practice at trying. The sperm struggled. It’s how we got here. It’s part of our genetic makeup. When it comes to development, don’t mess with mother nature.

  3. The road to success is paved with challenges, adversities, and hurdles to clear. Easy Street doesn’t intersect with Victory Lane.

  4. Why do kids need adversity?
    They’ll get plenty later on.
    What’s the rush?
    Plenty of life experiences coming their way.
    And the large potamus makes a great point – I always quiz my doctors about their sewing experience at summer camp.

  5. Great coaches for great teams don’t coddle their great athletes (yet another sports analogy for parenting).

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