The Productive Struggle:: 4 Lessons I Learned over the Years


I’ve been a mother for twelve years now, and I can say that it’s not easy. This is the understatement of the year, right? At first, it wasn’t easy because of the challenges babies provide: no sleep, dirty diapers, constant feeding, and your best guess as to what is bothering them. Now that mine are grown and can communicate, a brand new set of difficulties arises: Not everyone is going to love them as much as I do. Not everyone is going to care for their every need. Not everyone is going to handle them as carefully as they deserve. One thing, as parents, that we have to embrace is the beauty of the productive struggle.

I am not a participation trophy-type mom. I do like to see my kids earn what they get, but it is hard to help them through the struggles of failure. As my middle schooler progresses through life, I am learning as much about graceful shortcomings as he is. Here are four productive struggles that I learned over the years. Productive Struggle with Kids

Productive Struggle #1: When They Don’t Make the Team

For most of my kids’ lives, they’ve made every team simply because they signed up. As they get older, this won’t always be the case. In our metropolitan area, I know there will be some instances where my kids get cut from a try-out, an audition, or a team. I’m ready for this even though I never thought I would be. I get to practice this in my classroom. If my students don’t make something for which they try out, I allow them to be sad for one day, and then we look for better opportunities the next day. This concept is applicable to not getting the job when they grow older or facing rejection for an idea at their place of employment. This experience is a productive struggle because they are going to have to develop a way to bounce back. Why not start now?

Productive Struggle #2: When They Forget

One area of productive struggle in our home is owning up to mistakes. We all make them, and I’d like my children to take accountability. That is not to say that I won’t do everything I can to help them get their homework done so that it’s not late, or help them focus on a timeline for a big project. It means that when they slip up and miss a deadline or forget their backpack at home, they are going to have to find a way to take accountability and persevere. How they work through minor setbacks, say so much about them as humans. If nothing else, feeling the sting of irresponsibility in 5th grade, may just make it, so they don’t make the same mistake with higher stakes at 25 years of age.

Productive Struggle #3: When Their Friends Choose Other Friends

We’ve already had to deal with the struggle of losing friends. Sometimes, peers can hurt feelings or choose to join an activity that is opposite of my child’s choice. Sometimes peers fall away, and we make new friends. No matter what the result is, the time when the friends are a stressor can hurt feelings.  We talk through these periods, so they know they have options. I try to impress upon my kids that they need to find people who make them happy. In elementary school, it isn’t as severe as it will be in high school. They are developing the skills of being picky about their friends, so when they are teens and have to “say no to drugs” or stand up for themselves, they can. It’s a harsh lesson, but a crucial productive struggle.

Productive Struggle #4: When Mistakes Make Masterpieces

As a writer and a teacher, I know mistakes are essential in the learning and creative process. I have written things that make me cringe now. I have made mistakes with writing and teaching and being an adult. Each error has taught me a little about myself and my creative path in life. I scribble and revise in front of my students so that they can see that the writing process is full of that. This same idea applies to life lessons. We work with the script of our lives, and our kids are starting their first drafts. There will be mistakes, but if they are productive struggles, the risks they take now can help them polish their final drafts.

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Tessa A. Adams is a graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a Masters in reading. She is a language arts and creative writing teacher and is the co-author of the blog She has three children and when she is not mothering or teaching, she is writing. Her work can be found in Fine Lines Literary Journal, Huff Post Parents, Empty Sink Publishing, Route 7 Review, Sammiches and Psychmeds, THAT Literary Review, The Sunlight Press, xoJane, and


  1. Well said. I appreciate your point of view. I have to keep reminding myself that the mistakes my children make now are teaching them not to make them later in life when the consequences are so much greater.

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