Several important things changed for my son during the summer between his 8th and 9th grade year of school. Not only was that the summer we moved from Iowa back to Missouri, but as Tucker was headed into high school, he grew several inches, got his braces taken off, and decided to make the switch from glasses to contact lenses. As his dad, it seemed that overnight my boy went from coming up to my shoulder, to now looking at me eye to eye. And it wasn’t just that the physical changes made him look older. It was like his body was signaling that life was about to expect more of him. Adulthood was on its way, whether he was ready or not. That’s the question, isn’t it? Is he ready? I think that’s a question all of us ask about the next generation. We see 16-year-olds behind the wheel of a car and doubt that they know what they’re doing. We watch young 20-somethings getting married and wonder how on earth they will be able to provide for themselves. Then those young couples bring home babies and we wonder if they will be able to figure out how to take care of another human life.
Here’s a better question: How do we help them to be ready? Believe it or not, it was Tucker’s switch to contact lenses this summer that served to remind me of an important truth. I happened to be the one who took Tucker to his eye doctor on the big day. The doctor was a kind and patient man. He did the exam and talked through the options with us, explaining what it would be like to wear contacts. We learned that if a person makes a switch to contacts, they need to show the doctor that they can put them in before leaving the office. That made sense. The doctor then proceeded to go through the motions for Tucker, showing him how to tilt his head back, open his eyelids with one hand, and then insert the rubbery lens onto his eyeball with a finger of his other hand. It was in that moment I realized this had to be one of the most unnatural things a person could learn to do. In fact, it seemed like we were asking my son to do the opposite of everything his instincts would tell him. As I watched Tucker do his best to repeat the process on his own, I started to wonder if this was ever going to happen. It was like watching a blindfolded person play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey on their own face. Not only that, it seemed like the lens itself was massive, like he was trying to get a dinner plate to fit inside of his eyelids. Although he was determined and brave, trying again and again, finally it was time for the next appointment. And even though we had not successfully put them in, the doctor allowed us to leave with the contacts. This is when it got real.
At home, it was on us parents to get these dinner plates inserted for him. We learned that we could do it, but it felt like an intricate dance each time he wanted to wear them. I would hold a top eyelid open with this hand while mom pinned the bottom down with that one and then tried to get the thing to actually stick to the eyeball without folding or sticking to the eyelashes, etc., etc. Needless to say, it was quite an ordeal and there was a time or two we showed up late to events, more than a little frustrated, because of this circus act. This couldn’t go on. I started thinking of all the people I knew who wore contacts and wondered how on earth they learned to do it. Was it this difficult for everyone?
And then it hit me. As soon as we had brought the contacts home, my wife and I had made it difficult for us, but not for Tucker. Now, that might sound cruel to some of you, but hear me out. What we did by removing the onus from Tucker was to rob him of his ability to learn how to do something with his own muscles and nerves. Oh, we would get the contacts in, and he adapted to wearing them, but he was not learning the nuanced feeling of doing it himself.
I think this points to an important truth — one much bigger than contact lenses. In fact, I think this truth has implications for just about everything we humans do in life. You see, we all were at one point those 16-year-olds learning to turn left into heavy traffic. If you are married, you remember the sobering feeling of coming home from the honeymoon and getting that first mortgage bill in the mail. Or if you are a parent, you remember bringing home the baby and wondering if the hospital made a mistake by allowing you to leave without some kind of baby-raising certification. So, how did we learn to do these things? By going through the trial-and-error, day-by-day, difficult and often scary process of learning by doing. And slowly, what felt so unnatural, became something that we could do without thinking. Perhaps as parents, or teachers, or leaders, our attempt to help those around us by alleviating them of anything difficult might actually be robbing them of a wonderful opportunity to grow.
Think about this: My son knew in his brain what needed to be done to insert his contacts. He could’ve passed a test, or written an essay about it. He had even watched someone go through the process right in front of him. Also, his desire was there. He certainly wanted to get rid of his glasses. And while the knowledge and desire are vitally important (another blog post on these later), they are not enough to get the job done without him learning to actually do, in his own body, the act that needs to be done. The thing I needed to do as his dad was to actually let him struggle through the action for a season. So that’s what we did. The rule became that unless Tucker could put the contacts in by himself, he had to wear his glasses that day. And you know what, he did struggle for a season. But that season didn’t last very long before he learned by doing.
Yesterday, I walked by as Tucker was putting in his contacts while casually carrying on a conversation with his sister. What I feared would never be a reality has become a simple, daily habit for him. What made the difference? We simply made the decision to allow him to struggle. And it was through that season of struggling that he was able to connect his knowledge and desire to the actual action he had hoped to do in the beginning.