Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs about people who had gritty, traumatic childhoods. By sheer will, they fought the odds, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and are now leading incredibly successful lives, in large part because of the survival tactics, work ethic and strength of character they developed at a young age.
This has led to many discussions with friends about the great modern dilemma: Most of us (by great fortune, we realize), are raising our kids in safe, stable environments with a lot of conveniences. They don’t have to haul water for dinner or milk a cow before breakfast. They don’t have to fight street gangs or eat mush three days in a row or wear handmade clothing.
Our children, to be quite frank, are soft. We tell them about grit, then drive them to basketball practice. We tell them to do chores, but it’s mostly about cleaning their expansive bedrooms.
I’ve written before about manufactured hardship. And I recognize that it is the privilege of our time and class to create experiences that will build character. But I still believe in it. No good parent wants to put their children through traumatic situations to develop successful adults. For every Jeannette Walls or Tara Westover, there are thousands of children who get stuck in the cycle of poverty and abuse and never break free.
But on top of manufactured hardship (the intense music lessons, chores, sports, rigorous educational models), I think we also need what I like to call productive crisis.
Productive crisis allows children, families and even communities to grow stronger and more cohesive, without the trauma that comes from a real crisis, such as a world war or abject poverty.
Productive crises require innovation, community and strength of character.
When we lived in Minnesota, we had a yearly productive crisis. It was called winter. Every year it whittled us down. But it also built us up. We had to come up with creative ways to survive four to five months of dark, subzero days. We learned to gather often with friends to combat the isolation and loneliness. We pulled together to shovel up driveways, down sidewalks and around fire hydrants. And when we all emerged sometime in April or May, we hugged our neighbors and marveled at what we had been through.
We used to say that those winters weeded out the riffraff. It was a joke, but we believed it too. Anyone who couldn’t handle a Minnesota winter gave up and moved to Florida.
I’ve thought a lot about other productive crises we can go through to build us up. I think coming from a large family, or having another baby, can be a form of productive crisis. So can moving, especially as a teenager. Working on a large project, like building a house, can be a productive crisis.
Communities also need productive crises. A few weeks ago, we got completely hammered by snow here in the Pacific Northwest. What was supposed to be a few inches came down as a whopping 2 feet, overnight. The city ground to a halt. Power went out. The snow was wet and immensely heavy. Trees cracked and crashed, blocking roads and sidewalks.
We spent four days like this. It was challenging, but also quite impressive to see the city come together. We checked in with our neighbors. Friends invited over other friends without power. Chainsaws emerged. We had friends who moved heaven and earth, pulling their car out of their long driveway by tractor, just to bring us a generator so our basement wouldn’t flood. And in the lull, we all gathered on the hilltop to sled and drink hot chocolate.1 comment on this story
In the end, we all had something in common, this shared trial. We swapped survival stories and marveled at our own ingenuity to get by. All I could think was, “This is exactly what our community needs. This is what our nation could really use.”
I’m not sure how to manufacture productive crises on a nationwide level, unless we all want to move to the land of perpetual winter. I do think we can look for ways to make our families and our children stretch out past the point where things are cushy and comfortable.