Until this past Sunday, it had been years since we took my stepdaughter bowling. The last time we bowled, I remember wondering how her tiny eight-year-old fingers would ever be able to lift that six-pound ball. Somehow, she hoisted the ball, dangling it haphazardly from her little arm, and staggered to the line, her whole body off balance. She would swing the heavy ball with the shortest of arcs, and it would drop almost straight down in front of her with an ear-splitting clatter. Then, we'd wait. About 35 years later, the ball would finish its achingly slow commute, zig-zagging from bumper to bumper and finally, finally, hitting a pin so gently that it would pretty much bounce off it. To her delight, she'd knock over at least a few pins every. single. time. She'd spin around with unbridled glee, jumping up and down. As the proud parents we are, we'd join her in her excitement, providing endless high fives and verbal affirmations of her bowling prowess.
Fast forward to present day, and we had a less-unbridled, ultra-cool 13-year old joining us for bowling this time. While excited for the family activity, she was more measured in her outward display. On the way to the ally, we warned her that this would be her first time bowling without bumpers. After a moment of pensive reflection, she simply said, "Okay, that's fine." My husband and I glanced at one another and then readied ourselves for the game. I marveled when she chose a 10-pound ball and lifted it with ease. She started off our first set. We gave her the usual pointers about keeping her wrist straight, taking her time, trying not to drop the ball straight down on the ally. She seemed determined and confident.
The first bowl was a disaster. Her wrist twisted, resulting in the ball careening sharply into the gutter. Next bowl, an exact replica of the first, except into the gutter on the other side. Three rounds in and she had accumulated a total of six gutterballs and zero points. My husband and I started to waver. Was she not ready for regular bowling? Should we ask to switch to a bumper lane? It was so hard to watch her keep trying, and keep failing.
Time for the fourth set. Miraculously, the ball stayed straight, and she knocked over several pins. We were all over the moon! She jumped up and down, a replica of her eight-year-old self, despite being such a cool teenager. As the day wore on, she got better and better scores, doubling her tally between the first and second games. She was proud, confident, and quickly reclaimed her former bowling prowess.
So, what if we had moved to a bumper lane? Sure, she would've had much better bowling scores (and my husband and I would have, also, if we're being honest...). But she would not have learned. She would not have been challenged to focus on her skills - her wrist stability, knowing how to slow her pace, lining her feet up properly with the pins. She would not have realized that she can learn, grow, and see her abilities bloom right before her eyes through her own hard work. In short, she wouldn't have had an opportunity to believe in herself.
Bowling without bumpers gives us a perfect metaphor for why we should find ways to embrace the adversity we face. Just as our kid didn't grow in her skills and confidence without first failing and struggling, we don't grow and learn without facing some hardship ourselves. If we were to have everything we want without working, or struggling, or failing first to get there, we wouldn't value the things we have or the skills we demonstrate. As parents, it is easy to want to clear out obstacles that impede our children, or rescue them when they fail. It hurts to see your kids suffer. But when we clear out hurdles in their path, they never have a chance to strengthen their own muscles and realize that they CAN do it. It might not be pretty, and they might throw a few gutterballs, but they will eventually succeed. And that knowledge is priceless.
Dr. Bethany Detwiler is a psychologist practicing in Allentown, PA. She specializes in mood and relationship struggles. She also is an adjunct professor of counseling at Lehigh University.