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  • Writer's pictureErica Tatum-Sheade, LCSW

The Boy and The Butterfly

If you have ever attended one of my parenting workshops, you've heard me tell the story of the boy and the butterfly. It goes a little something like this:

A boy and his class go on a field trip to the caterpillar farm. Each child is given a caterpillar and told to take it home and give it food, water, and love to help it grow. Soon, the caterpillars start to form their chrysalises and all the students are so happy, they did exactly what they were told to do. When the chrysalises start to shake, everyone is excited. "It's time! Our babies are ready!"   One little boy notices that his isn't shaking. He starts to worry that his butterfly is struggling, so he cuts a little opening in the chrysalis to help his butterfly out. He looks around and soon all the butterflies are starting to emerge. Some take off right away and know exactly where to go, others fly in a circle before getting their sense of direction. A few take off and keep returning, not yet ready to fly on their own. The boy looks at his chrysalis and notices that the butterfly still has yet to emerge. He decides to open the chrysalis all the way, because he no longer wants his butterfly to struggle.  Out pops his butterfly, and the boy is so proud. He did it! His excitement, however, soon fades when he realizes that his butterfly can not fly like the others. He quickly packs up his butterfly and takes it to the butterfly specialist - he holds it in his hands, reaching out, and sadly says “please fix it?” The butterfly specialist takes and examines the butterfly and asks the boy a series of questions.

The expert then returns it to the boy saying, "I'm sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong but I cannot 'fix' your butterfly.” Upset, the boy says "What do you mean? You are the expert, and I did everything I was told to do. I fed it, I gave it shelter, I gave it love, and I even opened the chrysalis for it so it wouldn't have to struggle." The butterfly specialist, now realizing what happened, calmly and caringly replies to the boy, "Young man, the struggle of breaking out of the chrysalis on its own is what gives your butterfly’s wings the strength it needs to carry its clunking caterpillar body through the sky. I know you opened the chrysalis out of love and kindness - but without the struggle, now your butterfly will never be able to grow.”

When I share this story, I'm met with two reactions; the “I get it now” face, or the “what a load of crap” face. The reality is that as parents and caregivers, we *never* want our children to struggle. But some struggle is absolutely necessary if we are expecting them to learn.  

If your kids were like my kids during the toddler phase, you probably heard "I do it!" more then you wanted, but hopefully you allowed them to try until they were able to master whatever it was that they were trying to do. Dealing with emotions and difficult situations is the same.   When an adolescent is struggling with keeping up with school work, jumping in and organizing it for them teaches them nothing. Allowing them to problem-solve and work through process side by side with you gives them the skills needed to be able to problem-solve later in life.   With emotions, we need to feel ALL the feels to have an understanding of why we react a certain way in certain situations. Shutting down their emotions or telling them they are overreacting does not create the space needed for empathy and understanding or for growth.

Now let me be clear for the "what a load of crap" audience - struggle is necessary, but we do not let our children suffer needlessly. I do not expect my 7 year-old to know how to balance a budget and cook dinner on his own and leave him to the wolves if he can't. I do, however, expect my 7 year-old, when he's overwhelmed with math homework, to be able to try and ask for help after he has tried to problem solve himself.   Our job as parents is not to fix it, rather to support and lead. Allowing our children to get through some of the hard parts on their terms teaches them they can handle hard things and gives them the strength to take on the next hurdle. Supportive parenting means we are there when they fall to offer support if they ask - but we also encourage them to get back up on their own.

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