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Middle School Blog

The Productive Struggle


Healthy childhood development needs exposure to adversity. This is sometimes referred to as “Productive Struggle.” We touched on this notion at the recent Middle School Back to School Night, and I want to continue the conversation here.

Productive Struggle in the Classroom

In her article, “Productive Struggle is a Learner’s Sweet Spot,” Barbara Blackburn unpacks how this notion unfolds in the classroom. She writes, “Productive struggle is what I call the "sweet spot" in between scaffolding and support. Rather than immediately helping students at the first sign of trouble, we should allow them to work through struggles independently before we offer assistance.”

But with the world as our children’s classroom, I would take this even further to attest “productive struggle” is imperative in all aspects of their lives. Students need to be exposed to challenges and then work through them. This builds independence, confidence, agency, and helps students to be less prone to crippling frustration.


Productive Struggle on the Playground

We can see this phenomenon happening naturally in free play. Every day on the playground, I see children finding great joy in creating challenges for themselves, and then conquering those challenges. Whether it be climbing, balancing, escaping from a playmate, or succeeding at some “feat” they have defined for themselves, kids revel in the success they realize when the success materializes. I posit that this is a natural process that is designed to help children grow.


Barriers to Healthy Productive Struggle

Our youth’s natural development depends on the inevitable challenges presenting themselves. Unfortunately, things get stymied when well-intentioned, but overly protective parents shield their children from these challenges. When this happens, developing children do not learn how to navigate through the obstacles, and sadly, they are deprived of the satisfaction associated with a hard fought victory. Furthermore, because they do not get the exposure, they are ill equipped to handle the emotions of a presenting challenge. If they are not accustomed to it, they will experience intimidation, frustration, and anxiety when the going gets a little tough. 

It is no secret that we are experiencing an anxiety epidemic and I believe that some parents’ “lawnmower” parenting style of mowing down obstacles before kids encounter them is contributing to this. Psychotherapist, author, and College Professor Amy Morin LCSW outlines several ways this kind of parenting is hurting our children more than they are helping. She mentions preventing kids from problem solving, not teaching kids to deal with discomfort, and not instilling confidence, among other points. 


If you’ve been a lawnmower, you’re not alone. But, what can you do about it?

If this sounds like you, please know that you are not alone. I’m a father first and foremost, and I get it. It is natural to protect and shield our children. But, speaking from experience, here is what I suggest.  

Take a step back. See the long view on your children’s development. Rather than looking solely at the short-term and preventing them from facing adversity, resist the urge. It feels counter-intuitive, but the long-term dividends will pay off. 

As a father who has watched his own two children go off to college and now recently one of them move to a far away city for a new job, I can see the value of fostering independence, confidence, problem solving skills, and all the rest. Full disclosure - although they are wonderful young ladies (my unbiased view) I do have some regrets. I wish I had let them do some of the things we as parents did for them to experience the value of “productive struggle.”. It would have made these big transitions easier for them and for my wife and I.

Here’s to stepping away from the lawnmower, and letting the grass and sticks challenge our next generation.

I’d love to keep this conversation going. Let me know some ways you are fostering “productive struggle” in your children’s lives or tips and tricks for stepping away from the lawnmower, so to speak!



5 Ways Lawnmower Parents Hurt More Than They Help (Even Though Their Hearts Are in the Right Place), SEP 20, 2018.


  • International Baccalaureate
  • Junior High
  • MYP
  • Middle Years Programme
  • childhood development
  • middle school
  • parenting
  • productive struggle


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