Grit, for lack of a better word, is good. (I’ve never seen Wallstreet, have you?) All of the members of book club who read How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiousity, and the Hidden Power of Character agreed that we wanted our kids to have some grit.
Grit refers to clenching or “gritting” one’s teeth together with determination to overcome an obstacle or painful task. I have a dangerous overabundance of grit. I know because I gritted my teeth so hard and often during breastfeeding the twins that I cracked three of my canines (a very, very bad thing) and closed the gap between my front teeth. I have the kind of grit of the monkey who would rather die of starvation than let go of the banana so she can slip her hand back out of the whole in the trap.
Too much grit, for lack of a better word, is a bad thing.
There has been a lot of talk lately about how we ought to hover over our children a little less and let them fail a little more. Letting kids fail does not mean that we detach ourselves from their progress and allow them to destroy their futures by failing out of school. Letting kids fail means 1) not shielding them from trying things they aren’t immediately good at, and 2) supporting them through the failing phase until they eventually succeed.
My roommate in college told me something that shook me to the core. She said her father taught all his kids that if they weren’t failing three times a week, they weren’t trying hard enough. (Sorry, Erin, if over the years I’ve misremembered the exact ratio of failing to trying.) When I first heard it and thought of failing three times a week, my blood ran cold. How could anyone endure the humiliation and rejection of failing so often? I would throw myself into the Charles river after the first week of living like that! Wouldn’t I be better off sticking only to things I can be immediately good at so I can preserve my precious self-confidence? Ah self-confidence, you chimera that we all thought in the 1990’s was the ultimate key to success, we hardly knew ye.
My biggest problem with failure is semantic. Failure sounds so final, so definitive. “He’s a failure.” There’s nowhere to go from that. But if I can think of it as “failing” a verb and a process rather than “failure” a close-ended noun, then suddenly it isn’t so terrifying. Failing itself is a natural part of life. People fail constantly. Scientific experiments fail and fail until they succeed. In dating, relationships fail and fail until one doesn’t. Learning any new skill is a story of continually failing more than you succeed until you get to the point that you succeed more than you fail–hopefully a lot more. Didn’t Alexander Graham Bell fail like a thousand times until he placed that first call? And I’m pretty sure I’ve heard a run down of every office including class clown Abraham Lincoln ran for and lost up until he won the big one. Oprah failed and failed at every different kind of diet until she…okay, enough with the examples.
I feel like I’m failing right now, in a good way, the best way. I’m failing right now because I’m really, really trying to make something out of nothing. It’s still mostly nothing, but it’s less nothing than it was a month ago! I hate the feeling of failing, of being on the path rather than already having arrived. But the alternative is having no chance of ever getting there, so I persist.
I want my kids not to fear failing the way I did as a child and a teenager, the way the child and teenager in me still does. I want them not to think of failure as a boogey man who will capture you and put you in a cage you will never escape from. I want them to view failing as a natural part of learning to succeed. I want them to grit their teeth (gently and responsibly) and push through the failing phase until the succeeding begins. It hurts. It is hard to watch. But no one ever promised parenting was a cakewalk.