Nothing better demonstrates the power of human spirit and the will to succeed more than standing at the finish line of a marathon as I did this weekend . Watching the faces of the runners as they turned the final corner to the finish line after 26 long miles is nothing short of phenomenal. Smiles, tears, elation, people in all shapes and sizes, some sprinting to the finish, others just trying to power through anyway possible, physically drained and often in pain. But, they are determined and they do manage to finish. They get to feel the glory of stepping over the finish line.
Most of us probably won’t ever complete a marathon. Me included, and I’m a runner! But we can all learn something from those that do. That is the spirit of the marathon. The concept that working hard, having a clear vision, a giant dose of determination and the ability to deal with the aches, pains and setbacks that come along during the training and the course will hopefully get you to the finish line. Really, wouldn’t we all benefit if that same thinking could apply to lots of life’s challenges, not just the challenge of a race completed by so few?
So, how do we do incorporate the “spirit of the marathon” into our everyday lives? And for many of us another questions is how do we get our children to do the same? Well, as adults we can choose to take this approach (or not). We can start with something small, big, or simply anything that is important to us. Maybe it’s finding a new skill? Starting a business? Changing a behavior? Even kicking a habit (I’ve mentioned my vanilla cupcake addiction). As hard as it may be, as adults we have the experience and maturity to make choices for ourselves. Choose to put the effort in to get the result we want. But our young children, for the most part, still need to be taught and shown.
To be really honest, I struggle with this concept of determination and focus with my own children. Always wanting to unleash their own passions, we introduce them to a myriad of sports, hobbies and situations. As a result they’re incredibly well rounded kids but not sure that they have yet to find their passion. To find the thing(s) that they are willing to work so so hard for, risk faltering, even failing, in order to achieve. In essence, the Spirit of the Marathon. And despite watching both my husband’s fierce determination in just about everything he does (he is the one we were watching complete his 7th marathon) and my own crazy work ethic and need for productivity and contribution, our kids still seem to think that big successes in life are easy to come by and if it is not, hey you can always quit. Oy.
Are we failing our children? I don’t know. Recently there have been several articles focusing on the perils of “helicopter parenting”. For those not familiar with the term, helicopter parenting is a colloquial term for a parent who pays extremely close attention to his or her child's experiences and problems. Helicopter parents are so named because, like helicopters, they hover closely overhead, rarely out of reach, whether their children need them or not, attempting to sweep all obstacles out of their paths. Also called "over-parenting", these parents try to resolve all of their child's problems, and prevent harm by keeping them out of dangerous situations and removing any and all obstacles in their path. Most of the articles focus on how this behavior and incessant intervention in their lives is actually hurting our them. Robbing tour children of the experiences and the feelings that build strength and resolve.
But lets serious, it’s just so tempting, no? After name a parent that wants their child to experience heartache, conflict or failure? Not me. But the truth is, as adults, we know all too well that without some heartache, failure, and conflict, and all that comes with it, you don’t “grow”, you don’t ever know what it is like to “dig deep” to accomplish something or get through something. So I ask, are we actually standing in the way of their learning? Are our children building the determination muscle that gets them to a “finish line” years later? Sadly, I think the answer might be no.
The New York Times last month put it best. In their article “What if Success is Failure”, Dominic Randolph, headmaster at Riverdale Country School states that the most critical missing piece to this discussion of success and failure, is character —
Randolph believes in those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. 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.”
So what is good character? Is it really something that can be taught in the classroom, or is it the responsibility of the family, something that comes gradually over years of first hand experience with success and failure? Which qualities matter most for a child trying to negotiate his way to a successful and independent adulthood? And are the answers to those questions the same for everyone?
My belief, although believe me, not always my practice, is that we as parents need to teach our kids optimism, persistence and social intelligence alongside the many educational programs now focused on these themes in our schools. We also need to teach them how to get through difficult situations with grit and tenacity. Why? Because these are the kids who will be able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents or BFF; to resist the urge to watch television over studying; to realize that you don’t win every race, make every team or get every job and promotion. We need to act as role models and not be afraid to show our children our own failures and struggles just as much as our successes.
So maybe the real learning for my kids wasn’t at the finish line of the marathon at all but instead along the route, where the runners character was measured and tested: where so many runners probably wanted to give up; doubted their ability; realized they weren’t going to make the time they were shooting for; were struggling, but somehow found their inner strength and character to keep going. So next year that’s where we’ll be along the route, capturing the spirit of the marathon, not just the finish.
What do you think? Are we protecting our kids too much? Are they building the determination muscle they will need later in life to be happy and successful?