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.

Parenting Milestone

It has happened.

On Monday, after a day sick in bed, I went in to the school to pick up my kids (Jacob is 13 and Kathleen is 11 and both are at Ridley College). As I walked in to the library, one of the nicest teachers ever, Mrs. Bradley, walked towards me and greeted me with a big and warm “Hello!” So I returned the greeting with an enthusiastic, “Hi!”

And that’s when it happened.

Behind her back, I saw Jacob, eyes glaring at me and motioning with his hands for me to ‘Keep it down’. And I saw Kathleen, also coming up behind Mrs. Bradley, pointing with irritation at her own hair, as if to say to me, ‘Mom, you forgot to fix your hair’.

Without meaning to, I was embarrassing my children.

Now I admit to embarrassing them in the past. Just a few weeks ago, we were all at Chapters buying books for our vacation, and I was off on my own browsing when I recognized the tune of the background music. It was the familiar opening beats to Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’ and I found myself singing along:

     Tumble outta bed and stumble to the kitchen,

     Pour myself a cup of ambition.

I was really enjoying myself, actually, and was impressing myself for knowing all the words! Then my daughter came around the corner, and I quickly saw the look on her face – she was horrified. In the car, she came to life reliving the moment that she spotted her mother ‘actually singing’ at Chapters.

I get that she would find that embarrassing. But this time, at school, I wasn’t doing anything out of order. I was just being my normal self.

That night, I lay in bed thinking about how I felt about this. I thought about my Nana, who used to write letters to her kids’ teachers that my aunts still talk about. I thought about how I felt about my parents, when at Christmas, they sent me to school with gifts for the teachers that embarrassed me. I remember my teacher opening gifts of chocolates and mugs filled with candy – normal gifts – and then I had to hand over my gift in front of everyone. I was so embarrassed to give them a bottle of wine, even though my parents, both teachers, assured me that it was the best kind of gift. (And now guess what I give to my kids’ teachers?)

As a parent, I don’t want to try to embarrass my kids. But I also never want to compromise “being myself” not to embarrass them. In my opinion, likely the most important benefit of a strong and nurturing independent school culture is that it truly helps young people to KNOW and BE themselves…perhaps the most important of life long pursuits.

It is therefore more important for our children to observe us modeling authenticity of character – embarrassment warts and all! – than to change who we are to preserve their level of comfort in the company of their peers. After all, it is far more by our actions than our words that we support and ultimately give our children permission to be themselves.

So if it means that my frizzy hair is pulled back into a ponytail, or that I greet someone I really admire with enthusiasm, my kids are just going to have to live with it. As for singing Dolly Parton in public? I may try to avoid that in the future, for their sake and mine.