boy-lego-leagueSome years ago, someone asked how hard it was for me to go back to graduate school at age 50. “Didn’t I find it difficult working with all of the smart younger students and didn’t I find it hard to keep up with them?” Actually, no. I found my doctoral program much easier to complete than the work I had done for my master’s degree at age 25. At the time, I never considered the difference. It was only later when people would ask how hard it was that I realized that not only was it not hard, but I enjoyed even the most mundane of tasks.

You should know that I have never been a great student. My students love to hear that I almost flunked out of my first year in high school. I failed French and Latin, got a D in English, a C in History, and, while I did get an A in Algebra I, we used the same book I had used at a different school the year before. True, by the time I graduated from high school, I was 10th in a class of 83 so I had improved a great deal.   My university career was very modest, I graduated with a C+/B- average. No one then would have selected me for a doctoral program.

So what made the difference? I’ve been reading Angela Duckworth’s new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and I think I know the answer. If you haven’t seen this book yet, I highly recommend it. She begins by pointing out that many people who seem as if they should succeed do not. She points out that she was confusing talent with what she calls grit – her point is that the ability to do something does not predict success. Duckworth quotes Will Smith, the well-known actor. “I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented, “he once observed. “Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic” (p. 46).

The reason that I found my doctoral program enjoyable and, unlike many my age, that I completed it, was that was passionate about my subject – the education of boys. I had spent many years teaching boys and I really wanted to know everything about what made them learn. The second factor in grit according to Duckworth is perseverance. That is what I lacked when I got my master’s degree. That program was two years long, and by the end I couldn’t wait to finish. My doctoral program took four years and I enjoyed it so much I entered a post-doctoral program. Even now, I spend a good deal of my time reading research and trying to see how those studies inform what I have to say to parents and teachers of boys.

If you have read these blogs before, you know that the International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) annual meeting is coming up and this year I will be speaking on the subject of the latest information supporting the education of boys. One study that came across my desk this year points out that self-discipline is the most important factor for students to enable them to be successful in school and boys in general have very poor self-discipline. I get the feeling that Duckworth’s grit is what boys’ need. I see that characteristic in boys who are dedicated to a sport or a musical instrument, just not to their academics.

So if grit will help a boy succeed in school, what can parents do to help their son develop this characteristic? Years ago, Diana Baumrind proposed a way to describe good parenting. There are two continua for parenting: Demanding-Undemanding and Involved-Uninvolved. The demanding parent requires the child to follow the family rules and the undemanding parents allows the child to do pretty much what he wants to do. The involved parent knows what the child is doing, what the child is interested in, and can be rather nosy. The uninvolved parent does not pay attention to the child, but insists that the parents’ desires come first.  Putting these two continua in a chart results in the following types of parenting.

 Involved  Uninvolved
 Demanding  Authoritative   Authoritarian 
 Undemanding   Permissive  Absent

The Authoritative parent is the one who is both involved in the child’s life and insistent that that child follow the parents’ direction. This is the parent who is most likely to produce a child with grit. The Authoritarian parent’s dictum is “my way or the highway” and the child either does what the parent directs never learning how to do things on his own, or runs away. This child may develop grit because he needs to survive on his own. The Permissive parent’s dictum is “let him do what he wants to do,” but the child rarely learns how to make himself complete tasks because he has never been required to do so. We won’t discuss the Absent parent; those problems are obvious.

The students in my Introductory Psychology class are usually surprised to discover that the children of the Permissive parents usually have the most trouble in life because they never learn grit. They can have all the advantages in the world, but because no one held them accountable, they drift off and never complete anything. They are also surprised that children of Authoritarian parents are not as bad off as they would think because they frequently do develop grit – their parents make them finish tasks.

Yes, being an Authoritative parent is difficult and sometimes unpopular, but it is the way to make sure that your son develops the skills to succeed in life. By being demanding, you make sure that he develops skills in persistence and by being involved, you make sure that he becomes aware of his passions in life. It does take both. And when the child of the Authoritative parent fails, his parents are there to make sure that he picks himself up, they don’t do it for him. As Duckworth says, talent is nice to have, but you won’t succeed if you only have that.

Parenting is difficult and no parent can be authoritative all the time. Every good parent slips into the authoritarian realm every now and then, usually when things involve safety or education. Problems crop up when we are tempted to be permissive, letting the child run the show. Remember, the child of the permissive parent will not develop grit, and it is grit that will help your son succeed in life.