How To Get Comfortable With Discomfort

Discomfort is the feeling of being exposed, isolated and unfamiliar. Here’s why it’s good for us and why you should expose your kids to it.

Image of two teenagers leaning on a fence for article titled “comfortable with discomfort” on The Reflectionist

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Discomfort is the feeling of being exposed, isolated and unfamiliar. Here’s why it’s good for us and why we should expose our kids to it.

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I brought my youngest son to work with me yesterday- he’s almost 12. He and his older brother (13) take turns to come working with me when they are off school.

They are good kids, enthusiastic, eager to help and get stuck in. There’s never any complaints or moaning about the manual aspect, in fact, I think they enjoy getting their hands dirty and the time spent with me one to one.

I was a similar age when I started working on the sites.

Although now, kids need to be at least 16 years old to work legitimately in the system. They wouldn’t get a paid job otherwise and although I understand the premise behind the working-age rule, I think kids are losing out.

As a 13-year-old in the 1980s, I took up tea boy duties for 30+ blokes, most of whom were easy on me, but many were not.

I would have to take orders for the shop and make sure that the Burco was at boiling point in time for breaks twice per day. Woe unto the tea boy if the Burco wasn’t boiled, or the shop order was wrong.

Both happened to me a couple of times in the beginning.

You can imagine the fallout at 10:00 when 30+ tradesmen came down from the site for tea only to find the Burco cold. Needless to say, I made sure that I didn’t make that mistake very often.

Working on a building site as a 13-year-old with grown men making demands and taking few excuses made sure I grew up fast.

I had to.

These guys were tough customers, and when you fucked something up you got full force verbal abuse.

There were few who gave you allowance for your age.

The Discomfort of Cultivating of Skills

It was a case of either figure things out sharpish or be eaten alive.

So I learned how to be efficient with my time and plan my day.

I collected tea money off the lads every week and I learned how to make a few quid from getting a better deal on milk and tea bags from the local newsagent.

I learned how to make sure I had the right change and manage my float.

I made a few quid from tips too.

I learned how to, with sand, remove tea stains from cups that hadn’t seen detergent and a scrubber in over 10 years.

I learned the ropes, I got wide.

I found my feet and discovered how to stay standing under blows from less than understanding brutes of men who wanted nothing more than the pleasure of bashing a kid for minor infringements.

That’s how they learned.

It was an uncomfortable experience and for some reason, I accepted it and cultivated valuable skills in the process.

Two years later at almost 16, I started an apprenticeship in the same trade and because of the circumstances into which my father dropped me, I was way ahead of the mostly 18 and 19-year-olds in the training centre.

These days things seem different.

From my observations, kids receive too much support and not enough stimulation.

There’s no motivation for them to solve problems on their own, no encouragement for them to get into the middle of an uncomfortable situation and find a way out through the application of their own mental faculties.

Sure, they’ll get some coaching in the classroom from teachers who see the value in lateral thinking, but for the most part, there is no practical, hands-on, sink-or-swim experience.

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These Days It Seems Different

In the course of my work, the work that currently pays the bills, I enter the houses of customers and their kids lie in bed until midday.

I watch the children of friends and relations and they seem so dependant, so inept, weak and untested.

Sincerely, I don’t intend to be intolerant in the face of their youth, in many ways kids are supposed to be green around the gills.

But it’s how they seem to be continually supported and minded that I am concerned with.

Parents seem to be overprotective.

Schools celebrate mediocrity.

Creative thinking is something educators believe can be taught from a book.

Teenage children seem not to be given enough stimulation, appear to have too much comfort and support and as such, they risk growing up incapable of withstanding the realities of life.

My father knew what he was doing dropping me in the thick of it back in 1987 on the Wheatfield Prison construction site. He knew the sort of blokes that occupied that tea room at break time.

But he also knew there were guys who would look out for me.

He knew there were guys who would teach me, and he knew that I would pick up very important skills from both the good and the bad that continue to serve me to this day.

Teaching My Boys

I love my boys dearly and want to see them develop the strength of personality required to live an engaged and meaningful life.

Note I didn’t use the word successful.

That means they need to feel what it’s like to be uncomfortable, and sometimes very uncomfortable, in order to develop a strong centre under pressure.

I want them to know what it feels like to be in a pressure cooker and have to think straight.

I want them to get comfortable with discomfort.

I want them to learn right now, that they have the capacity to figure it out but within the relative safety of my guidance.

And so to the point of this story…

Yesterday as my youngest son worked with me, I gave him a task that was difficult.

In fact, I gave him several tasks that were very difficult for him in his position of unfamiliarity.

For him, I guess it was very challenging. Like being at the deep end of the pool for the first time and barely able to swim.

He struggled. I could see it.

I pushed him hard even though I knew he was reaching the edge of his emotional boundary.

I kept pushing. He got upset.

He eventually figured out the answer to the task I gave him and began to settle down although I could see he was a little hurt.

I left him to stew for a little while and then I explained why I pushed him so hard.

Later that day I gave him another task that was again difficult. It took him a while to solve it and when he did he was proud.

You see, I believe that when we find ourselves in difficult situations in life the discomfort sends most of us running for support. We seem to lack the inherent belief in ourselves that we have access to the answers.

I tell my boys, and Cara too, that the answer is always there if they are willing to endure the conditions and expect to find it.

Without that absolute belief in their own innate ability to find the answers to problems no matter how large or small, children will not develop the emotional agility necessary in adulthood.

Most people run for shelter under the pressure of life challenges or collapse under their weight.

Most people are unwilling to enter the fire.

I believe it is my job as a parent to challenge my kids, to put them in harm's way, to have them get comfortable with discomfort.

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