Getting Comfortable with Being… Uncomfortable

By | August 9, 2011

Discomfort. I know, it’s not a comfortable subject (Ugh. Sorry!). Seriously, though, when we talk about kids and the outdoors and teaching them about activities that we do outdoors, we as adults need to recognize something.

Sometimes the things we do outside involve just a bit of suffering. And for grown-ups (some of us, anyway), as long as that is within reason, it adds to the fun. Because we realize that later, we’ll relive the adventure and the discomfort will make it fun to talk about.

But kids don’t know this. They just know they’re uncomfortable, and they’re pretty sure they aren’t supposed to be. And why not? Everything else we do for them and with them tells them this (soft blankets, stuffed animals, etc. etc.). In my case, I have a daughter, so this is even more true.

But in my larger family (and my immediate family too) I’m known as the one who always brings the uncomfortable. A friend, who will go unnamed to protect the “innocent,” once said—in a nearly tearful voice—towards the end of a mountain bike ride, “Why do you ALWAYS choose up? If there’s choice between uphill and downhill, why do you choose up?”

I won’t delve into the psychology of why I might always choose to punish myself, here. But I do want to talk about why a little discomfort might be a good thing. Especially for kids.

Let’s start by defining terms. “A little discomfort” might mean staying out in the rain instead of immediately running for cover. It might mean the chafing that can come with being covered in mud. Or it could involve cuts and scrapes from trying to walk on a wall and having to struggle up onto it. What it doesn’t mean is something that will leave lasting harm. A sunburn is not “a little discomfort,” it accumulates and can cause skin cancer, plus it is painful for awhile. Bug bites are to be avoided. Again, for the lasting discomfort, but also because mosquitos and ticks can carry disease. Much more serious than wet clothes. And I don’t need to mention pain. Discomfort: Ok. Pain: Bad!

Camping is a good example of this, that most of us have probably been through both as children and adults. Not the most comfortable way of sleeping. But for some reason, it is still worth doing. Why is that? Why do we remember the rainy, soggy camping trips the best? Perhaps because the discomfort teaches us to appreciate the comfort of our everyday life. Maybe because it strips us down to essentials and teaches us what we really need are warmth and food. You never appreciate the “miracle” of dry clothes at all- until you’ve worn wet cold clothes for a few hours while hiking.

Or what about the thrills, adrenaline, and endorphins of exercise? You’ve heard, or maybe experienced, “runner’s high.” That rush of feeling good after pushing yourself further than you thought you’d be able to go. Kids like that, too. And it is also important for them to WITHIN REASON experience an adrenaline rush. You as an adult are there to mediate the experience so that it’s merely thrilling and not terrifying, of course. Gently pushing past what they thought they could do is the goal- not taking a four year old on Class V rapids! As an example, I’ve done well with this when I took my daughter to the BMX track to play with whatever she felt like rolling down. I took a step too far when I tried to urge her to roll down the (rather steep) starting hill and she went off the track and flipped over the bars (I was not being a little-league parent; I asked her if she wanted to do it. But I was encouraging her to try something just a little beyond what she thought she was capable of).

So don’t be afraid to get your kids out there. Play in the rain storms! Jump in the mud! Push the merry go round fast! Take them for a long, wet walk that makes ‘em whine just a little, but makes them say at the end, “Wow! We walked a long way, didn’t we?” Just remember moderation is the key—these are children. We aim for repeat customers!

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