Smooth Waters or Strong Sailors?

Protecting our kids from physical and emotional pain equals good parenting, right? What mama doesn’t want to protect their child from a skinned knee, disappointments, or the bad behavior of others? 

But sometimes, protecting our kids today leaves them ill-equipped to navigate hardships in life later on. As a mom to five children, I am inspired by this English proverb:

“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” 

How do we help our kids become skilled sailors? In today’s social climate, moms face tremendous pressure to err on the side of smooth seas. And when a tough situation arises, often we must shoot from the hip, with no time to seek wise counsel or make a prayerful decision. 

When my three older children were 8, 6, and 4, I faced this type of situation when our Basset Hound, Ted, got attacked by a pack of coyotes. I found him in the pasture, alive but in shock, with his side ripped wide open. It was a horrific sight. I rushed him into the house and laid him on a blanket by the wood stove. My husband and I quickly realized Ted’s injuries were not survivable. We would need to put him down. 

The kids were downstairs playing, oblivious. We covered Ted’s bloodied side with a towel so that only his head was exposed, then called the kids upstairs to break the news. “We have some very sad news,” we explained, “Ted has been badly hurt by coyotes, and we need to take him to the vet to be put down.” 

“No! No!” they protested, rushing to their pup’s side and petting his silky head. “He’s not hurt that bad! See—he’s just sleeping! He’ll be alright!” 

I caught my husband’s eye. They don’t get it. What should we do? My husband nodded toward the dog. I knew he was right. 

“We want you to see his wounds,” I said, “so you can understand how much pain he is in.” And then slowly, I pulled back the towel. 

Our little ones gasped at the sight—and in an instant, they got it. Their protests turned to understanding and compassion. We surrounded Ted, clung to one another in sorrow, and grieved together wholeheartedly as we said goodbye to the pup we loved. Then I made the long, silent ride to the vet. And in the days and weeks that followed, our kids cut their teeth on a grief that was heartbreaking but healthy, unmarred by confusion or regret.

As parents, we often must make calls like this, shooting from the hip and hoping we get it right. God has given us the responsibility of being our child’s shepherd, and we must protect them from actual harm. But too often, we reflexively protect against discomfort, not against harm. We must weigh how much our kids can handle—another judgment call—and ask Him to fill in the gaps. In pulling back the towel from our wounded Basset pup, did we traumatize our kids and cause them harm? Today they tell me no—that seeing Ted’s wounds helped them face reality.

Fast forward 15 years, when our family encountered a painful reality that dwarfs all others: Our middle daughter, Katie, 19, died from a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. And in a scene strikingly familiar to that night with Ted, our family surrounded our girl, clung to one another in sorrow, and grieved together wholeheartedly as we said goodbye to the daughter and sister we loved. 

Those small decisions to face pain head-on—to pull back the towel rather than shield our kids from reality—yielded a rich harvest. It’s not that my husband and I were genius parents—far from it. Remember, we were shooting from the hip at the time. But by learning to navigate waves big and small as they came, we learned to do hard things. I have grown to appreciate the deep value of leaning into painful realities rather than pulling away from them. By facing hard truths rather than avoiding or anesthetizing them, we all became more resilient, more authentic.

As a single mom, you face hard things every day—and often you must navigate them alone. Which strategy will you choose to protect your child when life gets hard: one that protects them by sheltering them from discomfort or one that protects them by equipping them to be strong sailors?

What does it look like to pull back the towel at an age-appropriate level?  As the shepherd of your unique child, you get to choose when to equip and when to shelter. You can…

  • Help your child grieve the goldfish that died (and have a conversation about life and death) rather than rushing to the pet store to replace the fish before your child notices it died.
  • Listen to your child when they are sad or hurt before rushing to fix the problem.
  • Ask your child why a friend might have said hurtful things at school, equipping them with relational insight—rather than rushing to soothe, placate, or rescue them whenever their feelings are hurt.
  • Find kind, respectful, and truthful words when your child is disappointed by those they love, rather than making excuses or minimizing their pain.
  • Name the bad behavior—a grandparent’s drinking, a teacher’s anger, a dad’s unreliability—without condemning the offender, modeling healthy relational patterns like healthy boundaries, self respect, and unconditional love.

Let’s pull back the towel and protect our kids by helping them become strong sailors. And it begins today—by equipping them to navigate the small and big waves they face in their everyday worlds.