Children and suffering

Kiddo#4 hates being put down. When I do, he’ll scrunch up his face with A Great Terrible Sadness and let forth this wail which means, clearly, “Why did you bring me into this world only to suffer?”

Over at Blair’s Blessings there’s a post about children and suffering. I can’t add to what she’s written, but I do want to extract the two quotes on her page and go in my own direction. Read hers too. 🙂

Pope Benedict writes:

“Even suffering is part of the truth of our life. Thus, trying to shield the youngest from every difficulty and experience of suffering, we risk creating, despite our good intentions, fragile persons of little generosity: The capacity to love, in fact, corresponds to the capacity to suffer, and to suffer together.”

This is so true it needs to be emblazoned across the sky. I know people who were shielded intensely as children and young adults, and they’ve grown into shallow, self-centered people who are afraid to take risks and who have no extended network surrounding them.

I’m not advocating tossing your kid into traffic to teach him suffering. Life does not care; there will be plenty of opportunities to suffer hardship. It starts when you tell your child no, no cookie because you didn’t eat your dinner. It goes up and through the times a friend doesn’t want to play with him, and when a pet dies, and when a grandparent dies. There are the little losses — a broken toy — and the bigger losses — a broken heart. 

What we can do is stand beside our children and suffer with them. It’s what God does with us.

The only way to shield yourself from suffering is to close in around yourself. Community demands we suffer together, and without community, or commonality — or dare I say Communion — we cannot love. Love is the basis of the deepest human interactions, and to shield ourself from suffering the consequences of loving only renders us less than human.

Frequently on the anencephaly support group, where moms are enduring suffering beyond imagination, I hear moms saying, “How am I going to get through this? How will I ever be the same?”

And I tell them, “You’re going to get through this. But you will never be the same. You’ll be more compassionate, more loving, more appreciative of the small moments. You’ll be more patient. You will have learned to love unconditionally. You will be the person others entrust with their hurts because they’ll know you’ve been vulnerable and you’ve survived. No, you will never be the same. You’re being transformed, and transformation hurts.”

It happened to me too. I don’t have the same edge I did before I heard that Emily would die after birth. But I wouldn’t change that part of my life.

The second quote is in the comments:

“We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.”

The primary emotional suffering is loss. The divorce book I mentioned recently states bluntly that logically, to insulate yourself against loss, you have to make sure you have nothing to lose. No friends, no lover or spouse, no children, no vocation, no hobbies. Nothing they can take away from you. Nothing you can’t live without. Once you’ve done that, you’re protected. But ultimately, that leaves you with no purpose.

Shielding children from every sort of suffering robs them of the chance to learn to grieve in a controlled, safe environment. They need that experience. They need to cry over a broken toy so that their first broken heart doesn’t devastate them. They need to cry over a lost stuffed animal because it teaches them how to cry over a lost baby, a lost relative.

They learn the world doesn’t end when they hurt. They learn that sometimes, this hard world which can knock them down also has soft hearts and soft arms on which they can land.

That doesn’t make it easy: it’s suffering. It’s hard as a parent to stand by and watch. But if I want my children to emerge from childhood as fully-manifested adults, with all the tools they need to conquer life and to be fulfilled, to be loving and lovable, then I need to support them in their suffering and suffer with them.


  1. xdpaul

    One other thing I’d add: I’ll watch my little shoats go through a world of hurt, and come out the other side, not unscathed but upright, yet I cripple up inside every time.

    There are days when I wish I had a little vial of kid extract to take. There is something to be said in favor of a childlike, but not childish, approach to suffering.

  2. Jason Block


    Your introspective posts over the last few days have been nothing short of brilliant.

    I agree with you totally. Making sure children experience NO loss, suffering or pain(like the lost toy, et al.) make themselves a bunch of selfish grownups.

    Trust me, when I lost my best friend at 20 to brain cancer…made me the person that I am now.


  3. Jenni

    “I cannot promise you happiness in this world – only in the next.”

    I try to remember that whenever things don’t go well. This is our journey, not our destination.

  4. CricketB

    Could you remind me of that when my six-year-old cries for an hour every night over a blankie we lost three years ago? No amount of sitting with her, commiserating, talking about Blankie Heaven, or anything else helps. Us ignoring it and insisting that loud crying be done in a different room seems the fastest way through it. Any sort of talking or hugging leads to louder crying — aimed at our ears. She wants to be sad, until she falls asleep or wears out the emotion. Which, I guess, is still a good lesson — you can only cry for so long.