How Can I Create Hardship for My Children?

“This is disgusting,” I used to whine when I had to help my dad shift the outhouse to a new location because the hole underneath had filled up.

“Yeah, well, it builds character,” he would grunt in reply.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, character–makes you tough and fearless.  Gives you perspective.  Makes you appreciate the pleasant things in life instead of taking ‘em for granted.  Makes you flourish where other men wilt and cower.”

“But Dad, I’m only six.”

“You’re six already?!  Why the hell don’t you have a job, boy?”

I worry that my kids might grow up without much character.  I mean, I can tell they’ll have plenty of personality, but that’s entirely different.  I suspect that the struggles they have in their lifetimes will mostly be of the internal, existential angst variety, which I suppose builds character in some sense.  But unless things take a terrible turn for the worse, they’ll probably never have to rely on outdoor plumbing, much less perform routine maintenance on it.

When my dad was a little kid, he lived in bunkhouses with a bunch of cowboys and went to class in a one-room schoolhouse in a place where the temperature was regularly -40 in the winter.  And he had a totally cushy childhood compared to his parents.  In turn, my childhood was a beautiful dream compared to my parents’, despite our living in a home-made log cabin with no indoor plumbing.*

I grew up solidly middle class, with what I now consider a net cultural advantage from moving around a lot because my dad was an Army officer.  Although the experience of living in different countries and parts of the US was invaluable, some of the places we were stationed were shitholes (to extend the outhouse motif).

I believe that a lot of what builds your character derives not from economic conditions, but from where you live.  Although my current financial situation isn’t that much different than it was growing up, I happen to live in what many people would consider–well–paradise.

When we first moved to San Diego, I thought it was a kind of okay place with nice weather and beaches.  Since we’ve had kids, though, I realize that it’s essentially one gigantic fantasy theme park for children.  As long as we live here, my kids may never have to deal with two of the most character-building features that a place can provide: weather and boredom.

We lived in Moscow, USSR for two years when I was a tween (before there was such a thing).  It got down to -50 pretty frequently in the winter, and the furnace in our decrepit building was pretty reliable about shitting the bed whenever it got below -20.  I remember sitting in the living room under piles of blankets and boiling water on the stove to fill up the bathtub.

The range of average temperatures in San Diego is 57 degrees in January to 72 degrees in August.  Our kids have probably worn socks a couple dozen times in their two years of life, have worn mittens maybe ten times, and may never own rain coats.

When we lived in Oklahoma, I used to while away the hours fishing for crawdads in the muddy creek.  Stranded in the suburbs of DC with no entertainment venues within biking distance, I killed time hiking to the bowling alley to eat french fries, or teaching myself how to play Sex Pistols songs on the guitar.  In Moscow, my friends and I rode aimlessly on the subway and were intentionally rude to Russians because there wasn’t much for American kids to do in the big, bleak, Soviet city.

My kids are two.  They wake up in the morning and I ask them what they want to do, where they want to go, what they want to see.

Lately, there has been a lot of “Walrus!” in response to that question.  So I load them up in the car and head to Sea World, where we’ll hang out until lunch time.  Other days, they might say something about gorillas, and we’ll cruise over to the best zoo in the country.  Maybe they’ll be on a surfing kick and we’ll go check out the surfers and splash around in the waves.  One of them might start babbling about “opatus.”

“Octopus?” I’ll ask.  Then we’ll jump in the van and go to our local aquarium, located on one of the most beautiful and valuable pieces of coastal real estate in the country.

I’m ambivalent about the privilege they experience just because of the city they live in.  On one hand, it’s amazing to have all these activities within reach, and never have to factor weather into our plans.  On the other hand, I think that nothing exercises your creativity muscles like overcoming boredom.  There is nothing that gives you a sense of the cyclical nature of the world like making it through a winter and really feeling the joy of the spring thaw.

That’s why I need to start erecting artificial barriers to my kids’ comfortable existence.  I think the first thing I’m going to do is build an outhouse.

It’s for their own good.

Photo Credit

*For a couple weeks during summers.  Okay, it was a vacation home.  But it was rustic, is what I’m saying.

About BetaDad

BetaDad is a fortysomething stay-at-home dad who is sometimes allowed out to build stuff out of wood or teach college students how to write. Most of the time he just chases his toddler twin girls around though. He Dad can also be found at his personal blog as well as Daddy Dialectic, Dad Centric, Insert Eyeroll, and Man Of The House


  1. Jack says:

    Digging a hole for and or moving an outhouse sound like the sort of things that make me happy to have no character.

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  2. I love this.
    I know I’m not an awesome stay-at-home-mom, so the kids have no choice but to help clean up their shizz and deal with, well, ME on a regular basis. But holy shmo, they have The Life. I am who I am because of all the stuff I dealt with as a kid. Heck, just growing up in the 70s/early 80s and living to tell about it gives you some character. I also wondered how to give them some of the grit they need to have to succeed in life without crumbling.
    I may just go build that outhouse in the back yard to up the ante on their chore list. So, thanks for this.

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  3. Mai Weston says:

    I often wonder the same thing. My parents never took to me to do 1/10th of the things I do with my kid. I don’t mean that as a criticism, I just have better resources than they did (as in more money, more time, fewer children). I don’t really have an answer yet, but there is something to be said for moving the outhouse.

    • beta dad says:

      It’s funny. I wasn’t spoiled as a kid, in most ways (except I got to ski a lot), but I got to do a lot of stuff that other kids didn’t. Like traveling all over the world, driving across country many many many times, etc. Some people might consider that kind of lifestyle disruptive to a childhood, but I think of it as a great privilege.

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    • Amy says:

      Ditto with my upbringing Mai. And at times I find myself spouting stuff that make me sound like, gasp! MY PARENTS!

      We lived 7 miles out of town. If you wanted to get up early and go into work with dad for a ride you were welcome. Other than that it was get on your bike or horse and get their YOURSELF!

      This summer I have found myself chanting this tidbit frequently when my daughters (almost 14) are seemingly incapable of getting on their bikes and riding 10 min to a friends house!

      I had not been on a plane until I was 20. My kids were all FAR younger than that. No fancy holidays for us growing up unless you counted the bi annual trips across Canada in the station wagon (pre air conditioning) to visit the rellies. (But yeah, great memories :)

      I think you are on to something. Outhouse maintenance! Building CHARACTER!

      Great post.

  4. ashley says:

    i so agree with this. my husband and i are expecting our first in a few months, and live in southwest florida. there literally isn’t a more sheltered place to grow up–very little diversity and lots of well to do people of one kind of race. we hope to be able to move to a real city soon, they’d never allow an outhouse here.

    • beta dad says:

      Congrats and good luck! One thing I like about my childhood (in retrospect) is that I got a taste of everything, from bucolic small town living, to the big city experience, to homogeneous suburban doldrums. They all have their pros and cons.

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  5. Karri Flatla says:

    Like. Love. Awesome. Amazingly insightful. YES.

    We don’t have to be extra *hard* on our children but nor do we have to coddle them in the extreme simply because “it’s there.” Like TV. Video games. Whatever form of instant entertainment abounds in our particular community.

    My kids learned, maybe the “hard” way (but not really THAT hard) this summer that they can and SHOULD create their own fun. Am thinkin’ the cable subscription is on it’s last leg around here.

    Remember when your parents had to like hunt you down like a wild animal just to get you to come inside at the end of the day? Now kids just sit around and wait for adults to flip a switch or spend some money or tap dance or whatever…


    • beta dad says:

      Thanks thanks thanks!

      Re: your last point–I totally remember being independent as a kid. It seems crazy now. We would hike for miles and miles in the forest when I lived in Germany, and no one seemed concerned. And in Moscow we took cabs and the Metro all over town at age 12. There was nothing interesting enough (like XBox or whatever) to keep us at home, so we were always out of our parents’ hair. They had the right idea!

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  6. Amy says:

    I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, and I’ve come to the following conclusion:

    I am excited to see what wonders our children will create in this world, when they know that their basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and education are met, and they can focus the energy that previous generations had to focus on survival in order to ACTUALLY survive on the things that fulfill them.

    Will they cure cancer? Go to Mars? Invent the iPad killer? Find ways to improve the situations of the children on this planet who don’t enjoy physical safety and security and luxury? I don’t know, but I think it’s going to be incredible to watch.

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    • beta dad says:

      Yeah–Obviously my lament for the lack of hardship in my kids’ lives is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I just hope all their material advantages will amount to something other than a sense of entitlement one day. I like your attitude on the topic, and am adopting it right now.

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  7. HeatherS says:

    Despite the feuding parents, family alcholism and constant worries about money as a child, I am relieved to say we never had an outhouse :). I think it’s all about balance. My kids don’t have to worry about food, clothing and shelter and I did. (And even if I do worry about it, I make sure that they don’t.) That being said, I still had a lot of love and fun growing up and my kids do, too. Financially, we’re more balanced but there’s not much extra income. I think you can find a way to give without spoiling, to teach them how to enjoy life and be grateful and not take what they do have for granted. If you do that, they will have character. Soon enough, life with throw some shit at them (whether they don’t get into their first-choice college, they lose a family pet or loved one much too soon, get fired from a job, something) and they will get plenty of the other kind of character-building experiences. Share all the joy you can with them now and have fun together. Don’t go crazy building outhouses. (Besides, it’s really gross).

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  8. We had an outhouse at our cabin too! And a fire stove to keep warm and we lugged the water up from the lake and strained out the bugs before we drank it!

    Oh and did I mention the seven hour drive of complete boredom with nothing but bruising our siblings arms when we saw VW Bugs on the road?

    NOW at that same REMODELED cabin, (which my children arrive at after playing video games,listening to iPods, and watching movies for 7 hours) they have indoor plumbing, electricity, filtered water AND now internet and phones. NOW I am not going to deprvie my kids of any of that – cause darn it, I WANT it all!

    BUT man – when they whine that they are bored, wow. I start thinking about making them use the outhouse!

    AND NOW, after I whine about HOW hard I had it at our VACATION cabin on a lake — I am going to slap myself. Cause yes, I still need a heck of a lot more “character-building!” #almostasbadasmykids

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    • beta dad says:

      That’s so funny. That’s pretty much the exact story of our cabin. Started building it in 1975, and it’s almost done. Electric and plumbing in 1981, gradual covering of the plywood floors and ceilings over the next 20 years, new deck in ’95 (courtesy of yours truly), telephone, new boat dock, internet, in dribs and drabs since then. And the latest innovation? A ROAD so you don’t have to climb up and down the mountain every time you go into town to get groceries or do laundry. It’s getting downright civilized! Now I’m worried that my parents, who spend about half of every summer there, are getting soft.

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  9. grannyj says:

    Correction! Your dad said, “We don’t need an outhouse” in spite of the fact that we were to spend 7 weeks on that mountainside. So your MOM took the borrowed pick-up, drove to the nearest town, bought an already-built outhouse (the only one in the county — what a find!). She delivered it as close as possible to the site SHE had dug and got the old man (then 37)away from his logpile to help carry it. Maybe you helped, too.

    • beta dad says:

      I don’t really remember the details of the installation, but I do remember having to move it at one point. I’m sure you and my sisters were involved too. Women were not spared from hard work or disgusting tasks. I was going to tell the story about when the old man hid in the woods one night and snorted like a bear, almost causing my sisters to burn down the outhouse and kill their mom in their haste to take shelter from the “grizzly.” But that would have been a little indiscreet.

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  10. I grew up in Canada, but live in San Diego now. Took the kids back for Christmas and let me tell you, winter. kicked, my ass. I’ve never had to get 4 kids all dressed up warm enough to avoid frostbite before heading out the door. It took hours.

    HOwever, since there is no snow here I figure our greatest natural ally is the desert. Just take their cute little butts out there for a while and make them hike. I think it must smell better than an outhouse too.

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    • beta dad says:

      Haha…I took them on a 1.4 mile (long way for 2-yr-old legs) death march at Mission Trails the other day. Was much hotter than I had expected. That should toughen the up!

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  11. IlinaP says:

    You should partner with Super Nanny and start a business selling outhouses as an antidote to spoiled children. I know elementary kids who complain because they don’t have the latest iPhone. They can flush that bullshit down the hole in the outhouse.

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  12. Liz says:

    I know this is supposed to be tongue in cheek, but if you truly feel your children are “too privileged,” then maybe it’s time to reconsider spending every day fulfilling their every wish. There are many other ways you can show them you love them, without indulging them in everything they request and then wondering how they are going to build character.

    That isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with loving your child and doing fun things with them, but there is such a thing as moderation. Moderation builds character, ya know.

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  13. beta dad says:

    I don’t actually indulge their every wish. Just do the things that I think will be most beneficial, enriching, educational, and fun for them. I get your point though. Thanks for the comment.

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  14. oilandgarlic says:

    I often think about this, too, since I also live in a warm-weather area (Los Angeles), though it’s nothing compare to San Diego. And maybe my kids can build character due to the smog and congested traffic.

    Anyway, I think that I hope to lessen that sense of entitlement via volunteer work as an example. It’s not something I do regularly but I want my kids to learn to help others.

  15. seo says:

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