Parenting

Should we let kids quit or teach them grit?

February 11, 2016

“With great privilege comes great responsibility” may be a familiar mantra to those with high expectations for their fortunate children. Many of us tread a delicate balancing act between wanting to give our offspring everything on a plate, while at the same time wanting them to be ambitious and leaving them something to work for. We want to provide our children with every opportunity, whether it’s a full schedule of extra-curricular activities, global travel experiences, or the latest gadgets, sports equipment, clothes or toys. And we believe that these early investments in our children will equip them to follow their dreams later on. The media, however, is telling us that we are spoiling our children, turning them into self-entitled brats, who don’t know the meaning of hard work. Is this fair? Or is it possible to give them everything and simultaneously arm them with a good attitude?

Feeling the pressure

As we are doing more to facilitate their success, our expectations for the next generation are growing higher and higher. Many children have tightly choreographed evening and weekend timetables that are as full-on as their school days, with less and less time to just chill out and play. More money is being poured into extra education, as children sit more exams at a younger age – the global tutoring industry is booming, with analysts estimating that it will be worth $200bn by 2020. Parents are exhausting themselves ferrying their kids between violin lessons, chess classes and tennis camps. Teenage students are taking on charity positions, internships and extra academic responsibilities, in order to fulfill entry requirements of the most competitive university courses. The pressure is rising ever further against a backdrop of tough competition from their international peers.

The millennial passion problem

Despite all of this extra pressure, activity, and effort expected of them, millennials have been labeled as ‘self-entitled’, and unwilling to work hard in unglamorous jobs to gain the experience that is actually valuable to employers. Members of this ‘Go-Nowhere Generation’ are apparently far happier staying put, and learning about the world behind the comfort of their computer, rather than heading out into the world to chase down opportunity. Confusingly, others say that while this is the case, of course they act like they deserve to ‘chase their dreams’, when they have been told all their lives to work only in a job they love. These young adults who have been given every opportunity, experience and product they want have come to expect it. No wonder they have a passion problem!

Quit or grit?

Clearly it has become a very common narrative to suggest that the children who are given everything don’t have the right attitude to push themselves and achieve their potential. Self-entitlement is closely linked to being overly privileged and lacking self-sufficiency and, when combined with certain characteristics such as laziness, a sense of superiority over others, arrogance, unwillingness to put in effort, or a lack of ability, it can be particularly poisonous. All of this chatter is creating a sense of anxiety among parents that our children must not only spend their childhood “skill-building”, but must simultaneously develop a positive and determined attitude towards their future. They must also be learning ‘grit’, ‘staying power’ and ‘resilience’, as well as the connection between effort and reward, even when applying themselves to things they find tiresome. Surely this will help them avoid falling into the self-entitled, lazy camp?

Practising is supposed to feel hard

Anyone who has been required to stick at something, even while hating it, knows that rewards can still feel sweet after a bitter experience. At the point where we feel like quitting, we are usually at our lowest point, and have lost perspective on any potential results. Sometimes, this may be the very point after which things improve, and we would never know it if we had just given up. In these instances, persistence teaches us that things that are worth having are often the most difficult to achieve – if it was twice as easy to become a concert pianist, for example, it might be half as impressive. In other times, we may feel like we are at rock bottom with something because we are heading down a rabbit hole, tying ourselves in knots for something that will never lead anywhere. In both cases, sticking at things means we learn to understand the difference between the two. We also begin to see patterns in our own behaviour, learn that practising is supposed to feel hard, and understand how we personally respond to challenges.

Taking resilience too far

Just as an extreme sense of entitlement can be damaging, however, an overly strong focus on ‘resilience’ can also go badly wrong, if it is taken too far in the other direction. This can lead to an even greater sense of disillusionment, particularly among children and young adults who have been academically successful through applying high levels of self-discipline and putting in years of extreme effort. This breed of young adult has been used to delivering the results expected of them throughout their school and university years, and into their early careers. It can be hard for them to relax, to find satisfaction in their success, or to know that they are actually allowed to quit. When they are finally free to ‘do what they want’ or pursue their passions, they no longer have any idea what that means. Therapists’ offices are full of high achieving 20-somethings who are dogged by a sense of ‘what is it all for?’. They have become used to foregoing their own desires to achieve the goals laid out before them, often by others. They may even begin to feel that to be successful, they must feel a sense of self-sacrifice, and even get used to feeling that being miserable will be worth the ultimate goal. It is confusing to them when they come to realise that all the trappings of success ultimately mean nothing to them and don’t make them feel rewarded.

The good kind of grit

This hollow feeling is usually caused by a mix-up in what ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ actually stand for in the education process. As studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have shown, teaching “grit does not require pushing yourself at all costs, but rather cultivating healthy emotional regulation skills and effective learning strategies”. It is more about learning to cope with pressure, than learning to bury our emotions and well-being in the relentless pursuit of success. As a result, some schools have started to focus more on teaching these strategies, and at least placing a focus on health and happiness. In this light, we should be more alert to the idea that we even through the best intentions, we might at some point be pushing our children beyond the limits of their (and our) well-being. Although it will not make their IB or A-Level exams disappear, teaching students that success is multi-faceted, that additional elements such as their character and relationships contribute as much to their future as their exam results, could actually help them deal with academic pressures, just as much as that extra hour of gruelling studying.

A healthy balance

Just as learning a certain type of grit can benefit children’s development and education, if cultivated in a sensitive way, a certain level of entitlement is not always a bad thing. Helping children understand that they deserve something, for example, can be a good boost for self-esteem and confidence levels. It is, however, key to have the right values and other attributes behind what justifies a sense of entitlement, including a healthy dose of self-awareness, readiness for hard work, and knowledge that expertise (“getting really good at something”) generates passion. Far from adding more to parents’ long lists of responsibilities, focusing on allowing children to take time off from the grind should actually free up some of their own time as well. In concentrating on giving children more free time to find out what they enjoy, nurturing a justified level of self-entitlement based on ability and commitment, and praising the right kind of ‘grit’, we can hopefully alleviate some of the stress of trying to push our children to achieve at all costs, as well as making sure they still work hard. And they should also remember, in some unhappy circumstances, after they have demonstrated their grit, there’s no shame in deciding to quit!

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