In our fast-paced, American society we have become accustomed to near-instant gratification from our smart phones, the internet, fast-food venues and convenience stores.
We buy things on the internet with free two-day shipping and get it delivered with ease. We can pull into a fast food drive-through to get things when we are hungry.
The conveniences have helped us keep up with the high-pressured culture we live in. Yet, in the process of offering these conveniences to ourselves and our children, we have reduced our opportunities to learn a very important life skill: how to make good health decisions when faced with discomfort.
When we look at the youth of today, we see many of the same concerns that plagued youth from prior generations. We continue to struggle with pediatric obesity, adolescent drug use and teen pregnancy. There is at least one thing all of these have in common: When the young person is faced with doing something that feels good, they often believe that avoiding that temptation will make them uncomfortable. And they don’t know how best to make good decisions when faced with discomfort.
I remember carrying snacks with me when my children were small. When they were hungry, they got fussy, and no one likes a fussy toddler. Yet as they got older, I tried to teach them that it was OK to be a bit hungry, we would be home soon, and they would then be fed. In my mind I knew nothing bad would happen to them if they were hungry for a little while on the way home.
Like many parents raising kids in this age, I struggle with the right balance of screen time and quiet time. My kids are quick to say they are “bored” when we have to wait a little while for something. They turn to their electronic devices to entertain themselves even during a short, 15-minute ride home. Sometimes I have to stop and say “be present with me,” which means “turn off your cell phone and communicate.” Teaching my kids how to handle the discomfort of impatience is another skill I have not yet perfected.
Physical exercise is an additional challenge. Many kids in my neighborhood drive golf carts or electronic scooters to cruise around, yet I have often told my kids to “use their legs.” They have leg-powered bikes, scooters, and skateboards with which to tour the neighborhood. Physical exercise is good for them, yet also a bit uncomfortable. They are learning to deal with that discomfort, and in the process staying pretty fit. And when they strain a muscle and have some mild associated pain, we don’t make a big deal out of that. Not every minor ache or pain needs a medicine to make it go away.
Pushing back against peer pressure is another kind of discomfort. If we try something that is not good for us and end up liking it, we will feel very uncomfortable when we try to avoid it in the future. This pattern can move on into adulthood, where undesirable youth decisions become undesirable adult decisions, often with greater consequences.
In the end, it is important that people learn how to deal with discomfort. It is OK to be a bit hungry and wait to get home to have something healthy for dinner. We don’t have to turn to our electronics to deal with boredom, and we can work to develop a better sense of patience. We do not have to treat every mild ache or pain with pills, and it is OK to feel muscle strains from exercise.
Sometimes doing the healthy thing is a bit uncomfortable, yet that discomfort builds our character. That strength of character is just what this fast-paced American society needs.
Janet Hurley, MD, is Medical Director of Population Health, Christus Trinity Clinic and president of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians.