Dragons, Mountains, and Math: Why Kids Need Challenges

A dragon flying through the forest

It’s often said that, on a hero’s journey, there will be dragons. This means that, if you’re doing meaningful work, you’re going to encounter extremely difficult problems. These problems will often be scary, but since you’re committed to your goal, you face them head-on. That’s what heroes do.

And in one way or another, we’re all on a hero’s journey – or at least, we should be. And that means we all need to be able to face down whatever dragons are on our path.

Of course, no one goes from zero to hero overnight. To be able to face serious challenges as adults, kids need to learn how to face lesser challenges as they grow up. They need opportunities to practice, starting with small challenges and building up gradually. They need direct instruction and encouragement. And they need adults to show them the way.

Mountains and Math Problems

Growing up, mountains were the main arena in which I practiced challenges. The first hike I remember doing was Little Si in North Bend, WA. It’s a tiny little nub of a mountain nestled up against the much larger Mt. Si. When we were on the top, my dad pointed to the big mountain and said, “People are climbing that right now. One day, you will too.” All I could do was stare up at it in disbelief. It seemed impossible to my six-year-old brain to climb something that large.

But as the years went by, the hikes got longer and steeper, and I got tougher. Eventually, peaks like Mt. Si were easy to climb, so I pursued the next level of challenges: backpacking and mountaineering. I climbed Mt. Rainier when I was 15, which was by far the most difficult thing I had ever done. The memory of that experience has forever inspired me to be resilient when I’ve faced other challenges.

Mt. Rainier

School provides a similar progression of ever-increasing challenges, and, done right, it offers them up at an appropriate pace. When my students express frustration that the math they’re doing is difficult, I kindly remind them that it’s supposed to be hard. After all, your brain muscles don’t grow unless you put them to work.

Direct Instruction

Overcoming challenges is not merely a matter of willpower and mental toughness; it’s also a matter of strategy. Children should not be expected to reinvent the wheel. They should be given direct instruction about how to manage the challenges they’re facing from their parents, teachers, and coaches. The methods for solving hard problems in life must be passed down from generation to generation.

“Children who have not been taught to confront challenges will try to avoid all challenges.” –Alfred Adler1

This extends beyond concrete problem-solving to teaching about resilience itself. Children need to be encouraged to try hard things and persist in the face of difficulty. They need you to express confidence in them – not necessarily confidence that they can do it right now, but a certainty that they can figure it out eventually. And they need to understand what it means when something is hard. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them, and it doesn’t mean they should give up. It means they should seek out strategies and resources; it means they should keep trying.

Leading By Example

Kids learn how to deal with challenges in large part by observing their parents, so modeling the right behaviors is essential.

“Model healthy and appropriate ways to manage stress. It’s OK to share your mistakes … with children when it is appropriate. Tell them how you are going to manage that stress, ‘I am going to go for a short walk and then come back and talk about this,’ or ‘I am going to take a few deep breaths before I try to solve this problem.’”2

In addition to practicing good stress-management tactics, you can also apply Stoic principles and practices in your daily life. The resilience you model will naturally rub off on your children.

A boy standing on a rooftop while his dad fixes the roof

Let Them Fight Their Own Dragons

The problems that are extremely challenging for your child might be much easier for you because you’re an adult, so it will be tempting to just take care of things yourself. Don’t. You can provide love and support, but your child needs to be the one to do the work. In the end, your children will need to fight their own dragons and climb their own mountains.

Don’t manage their school life for them. Don’t shield them from difficulty. Don’t rescue them from failure. Give them the chance to experience life fully and encourage them to seek out challenges. The struggles they will inevitably experience might be painful, but it is only through these struggles that they grow stronger.

1 Kishimi, Ichiro, and Fumitake Koga. The Courage to Be Disliked: The Japanese Phenomenon That Shows You How to Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness. Atria Books, 2018.

2 Rymanowicz, Kylie. “The importance of taking on challenges for young children.” Michigan State University Extension. May 4, 2016.

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