Teaching Our Children To Stay Soft In A World That Wants To Them To 'Toughen Up'
When I was in college, I competed on the university’s swim team. Given all that is involved with collegiate athletics, my teammates and I had this motto we often relied on to get us through tough practices or motivate us when we needed a pick-me-up: hard core.
As the phrase might imply, to be hard core meant maintaining physical and emotional strength in spite of pain and setbacks — whether it was enduring the grueling three-hour long training sessions, withstanding the mental challenges involved in competing at the collegiate level, or surviving the social dramas of college life. Hard core was a compliment in the highest regard, synonymous with strength, resilience, competence, confidence, and independence. To be hard core was to be respected and admired. Being “hard” was a good thing, since it was synonymous with strength, confidence, and tenacity.
The trouble is, I’m not really a hard person. I have a porous, thin skin, and I care (sometimes too much) about what others think and how others feel. The struggles of others become my own, and I want to fix everything for everyone. I cry easily. I ruminate on past conversations, dwell on my own mistakes, and often take things too personally. In other words, I’m a softie.
For much of my childhood and into early adulthood, I tried to harden up this softness since it so obviously seemed to be a “bad” thing. Everywhere I looked, the world seemed to be telling me to stop crying, toughen up, grow a thicker skin. I tried to remedy this softness problem with absolutes and forced indifference. I tried to be hard.
Except that I’m not indifferent. I don’t have a thick skin. And I don’t want to be hard.
I want to stay soft.
And I want my children to stay soft too.
The trouble is we live in a world that wants us to be hard and tries to make us hard. In many ways, being hard is an easier way to live. It is easier to see things in black and white, to look for absolutes, and to live in an either/or world. You don’t empathize with experiences outside of your own. You don’t obsess about problems that do not affect your life. You don’t cry.
It is challenging AF to have a thin skin, when everything gets in and there are infinite shades of gray. It can be scary to live with an overflowing heart, especially when it lacks a Teflon-tough protective shell. It is hard work to stay soft in this confusing, chaotic, imperfect world.
But I’ve made the intentional choice to stay soft, and I want to help my children do the same. The other night, before we went to bed, my oldest son asked why everyone who had money didn’t just give their extra money to homeless people because then everyone would have somewhere to live and food to eat. I smiled and said, “That would be really great, wouldn’t it?” and told him he had a good heart.
I didn’t, however, explain to him that some people might balk at his plan, calling it simplistic or impractical. I didn’t tell him that some people don’t think everyone is deserving of having their basic human needs met. I didn’t tell him that some people believe in bootstraps more than safety nets. And I certainly didn’t get into the whole issue of capitalism versus socialism with him.
I wanted him to go to bed believing that his big heart, wise mind, and inherent softness is what the world needs — because it is.
At every turn, our children are sent messages to toughen up, to build a thick skin, to be hard core. And you know what? Eff that. The world doesn’t need more “toughening up,” but it does need more tenderness, empathy, compassion. We don’t need walls; we need bridges. We don’t need to build thicker and more insulating shells, but rather we need to branch out more and take care of each other. Our children don’t need to be hard, but to stay as soft and loving as they already are.
The world might be hard, but we don’t need to be.
So I will let my sons cry and care deeply. I will remind them to always, always be kind — kinder than necessary. And I will remind them that, in a world that wants to make you hard, sometimes the most powerful — the most hard core — thing you can ever do is to stay soft.
This article was originally published on