You want grit? Two simple words.

I want my kids to be resilient, and I have a new year’s strategy that I think will work. It is not based on research, but I am currently testing it, and I will share the results. It is not a strategy that parents should necessarily endorse whole-heartedly, but I hope they do, and I hope that some schools will also experiment with it in certain situations. I tested it two nights ago, and so far, I am convinced that I have the solution.

Here is the scenario. On Sunday morning, Jacob packed for his return to boarding school. I did all of his laundry the day before, and Kevin found all of his ski gear, but we didn’t do the usual scrutinizing of his packing as we were a bit preoccupied (We were also packing up after babysitting our two year old niece for three nights). The good news is that Jacob didn’t ask for help, and we were pleased with his initiative (another skill worthy of development in teens). To be honest, I didn’t even ask if he had everything; I was just happy that we were all out the door on time for a big family brunch.

So when the text came through that night at 9:05, when he was back in his room, I had a moment of motherhood guilt. He wrote: “So far I have forgotten my new pillow, face wash and winter boots.”

I couldn’t believe it. How could he not have his boots in January? I felt responsible. I also wanted to shake my head and judge us both, but mostly I worried for him (Note: it will be -31 in Lakefield today). I read his text to Kevin, and we agreed we would courier them the next day.

But then I had a pause. Professionally, I say that my job is to ask good questions. What if I did the same as a parent? Rather than jump to his rescue, what if I just asked questions? So I wrote the following: “Your winter boots?? What will you do?”

Now please do not judge me. I know a boy needs his boots. I was willing – still am! – to mail his boots to him. But how is he going to learn from his mistakes?

Every educational resource these days is asking that similar question; the trend is to call it grit. The latest – New Pedagogies for Deep Learning – is something I read over the holidays as background reading for our 2051 Project, and Fullan also identifies the need for schools to develop children with more grit. This is all good. Kids do need grit. I think Angela Duckworth said it first, then Paul Tough and Alfie Kohn were quick to agree, but noted that most current strategies – other than Carol Dweck’s mindset – aren’t working. So how do we teach grit? (And no, I don’t believe it is by letting kids freeze their feet, walking in snow.)

Here is my theory. If you want to teach grit? Follow these two simple words of advice. Now I could present complicated strategies for parents to pause and think of the bigger vision of what we want for our children. I could recommend that we reflect on our own critical learning moments in our lives and think about who solved the problem. (Research shows that we learn life’s most important lessons when our parents are not around (and I would hazard a guess that teachers weren’t involved either!)) So here it is, the two most powerful words of advice that parents can follow in 2015: back off.

So far, Jacob is proving me right. His reply made me realize that there’s hope for him.

Jacob: I have my suede boots but I might borrow.

Mom: Okay. You can survive without your pillow but you need boots. Let me know if I can help.

Jacob: Well I don’t think you can.

The next night I got this text from Jacob: “Played hockey today.”

I wanted to ask about boots… I am really curious to know what he is wearing!   But I also know that playing shinny is his favourite thing to do at Lakefield, and I was just so happy that he texted to share that with me. I have to assume that he made it to and from the rink with something on his feet, and he has figured it out just fine.

So my new year’s resolution for 2015? Back off.   This is new terrain for me; clearly, no room for cold feet along the way.

12 thoughts on “You want grit? Two simple words.

  1. gGeat story & example of how kids are their own best resources sometimes. He didn’t lean on you, but rather used his own community (peers, mates, friends) to survive – literally and figuratively.

    Providing space, a safe distance, to allow students to think, feel and act on their own in times of challenge is key. There is a balance that parents need to strike w/ their own kids, but that will be unique to them.

    Thanks!

  2. Loved this Blog! My challenge last week was being in Victoria as a mom to a daughter in the Ontario freeze and she needed a warmer coat… that tension between protection and promise…the promise of the learning that comes when we do ‘back off’ is one I continue to dance in!

    At SMUS we are working hard to create space for our parents to dialogue and share ideas in our Learning and the Brain Series. I am attaching a link from a session we did on Grit and Failure about 16 months ago: http://blogs.smus.bc.ca/review/2012/10/19/the-brain-series-developing-true-grit/#.VLL4ttXF_ME

    These sessions are well attended by our amazing parents and they seek to find the balance with these same tensions! Thanks for sharing Anne Marie!

    • Very impressive that SMUS runs this series for parents… There is a limit to what schools can do to develop grit – that partnership between school and home is key. I know that many of our CAIS schools are focusing on how parents can become more intentional about failure and grit too… Thanks for sharing your great example!

      But you left me hanging….what did you do about your daughter’s coat?

      If you bought her a new one, or even sent some money, I have a suggestion – attend a parent session at SMUS! If she is old enough to be in Ontario when you are in BC, she is old enough to figure it out.

    • I actually remember that blog post! Thanks for sharing it. The topic is important. I met with the Head Girl and Deputy Head Girl at St Margaret’s this week, and they also talked about the need for schools to develop grit – they put it this way – we don’t want to be like the ‘handled with care’ package in high school… we need to learn to be ‘regular mail’. I loved that image.

  3. Could not agree more with this approach! We want school two teach our children to problem solve but as parents we often deny them the most obvious opportunities to apply those skills. Experience (read: learning from your mistakes) is often the best teacher. I have said it many times: our greatest challenge as independent schools is not to find ways to create opportunity but to find ways to create “hardship” for that is the crucible from which great souls are poured.

    • Well said! The St Margaret’s girls certainly noted that they were provided with many experiences that could “toughen them up” and when I asked about their advice for designing schools (as part of our 2051 Project), they suggested schools be designed around increasingly challenging experiences. Great food for thought with morning coffee!

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