A fascinating piece in the New York Times Magazine asks the question, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” The article examines efforts at two different places—an elite private school and a Harlem charter school–to instill core character traits that will prepare young people to lead happy, productive lives. Those core traits? Zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.
Out of all those traits, grit seemed to be the common denominator among successful adults. One expert defined grit as “an unswerving dedication to achieve [a] mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.” The biggest obstacle for young people trying to learn grit? Their parents, according to educators.
The question of how much damage is done by overprotective parents is getting more media attention. As we noted in a recent post, an Atlantic cover piece on “The Cult of Self Esteem” posits that many parents have unwittingly harmed their children by smoothing their path through life. The headmaster of the Riverdale Country School, profiled in the Times piece, comes to a similar conclusion:
“People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”
Coming to the defense of parents, the Times article author, Paul Tough, writes:
It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.
For many of us, our children are past the middle or high school stage. If we worry that we missed the opportunity to encourage they to develop some grit, don’t fear, the recession will take care of that, as we discuss in the next post.