by Lee Griffin
Several years ago, while walking with a flight attendant through an airport to make a connection, I asked her what was the least desirable flight to work. My mother had been a flight attendant many years ago, and I remembered that hostesses (as they were called in a less politically correct time) bid for the flights they wanted, based on their seniority. The woman hesitated for only a second and said, “That’s easy. The flights that everyone dreads are trips to Orlando during school vacations.”
As she explained, “That’s when the plane is filled with lots of divorced fathers who have temporary custody of their kids and are taking them to Disney World. The dads want to be sure their kid has a really good time, so they rarely exercise any discipline. Consequently, you have a plane full of kids doing whatever they want, and they can be the flights from hell.”
I was reminded of this when I was in Walmart one Saturday evening not too long ago. I know there are some very unusual people in my town (and this is being very kind), and, like a pack of zombies, they all choose to come out and go to Walmart on Saturday night. As I was trying to conclude my errand and exit the premises as quickly as possible, I heard a woman in the next aisle complaining to someone about her ex-husband. Because I’ve always suspected that Walmart gives people the opportunity to practice auditioning for reality TV, and being a voyeur at heart, I stopped to listen.
“He never exercises any discipline,” she complained. “He never makes little Bubba do anything he doesn’t want. He doesn’t make him pick up after himself; he doesn’t make him put things away; and I don’t think he even makes him do his homework. Then, Bubba comes back to me and is mad when I expect him to do some work. It’s Disney World at his house and reality at mine.”
Dad is what has come to be known as a “snowplow parent.” That is, he sees parenting as removing all of life’s adversities so that his child will always have a smooth path. Mom sees parenting as teaching her child how to shovel the snow to create his own path.
Why am I talking about this in an issue devoted to education? While this is an anecdote that relates to parenting in general, it is uniquely appropriate for parents and teachers of blind and visually impaired children. Their kids are running a race, starting from behind, running in an outside lane, and, even more than their peers, need to know how to deal with adversity. For that matter, its lessons are equally applicable to adults.
The danger for little Bubba is that, should he follow the path of the snowplow, he is virtually guaranteed to flounder once he leaves school and becomes an adult. The entire arc of his life is likely to be far less promising because of the lessons he has learned from Dad.
That said, let’s be honest; who doesn’t want to have someone shovel the snow for them if they’re willing to do it? It’s very seductive. And, if we’re not very careful, it’s a path many people, with the very best of intentions, are willing to direct the blind or visually impaired child down.
I suspect every parent, family friend, and teacher, probably including little Bubba’s dad, sincerely believes that they are honestly helping the children in their lives by shoveling snow for them. But how can we really know if what we’re doing today is going to help them in a couple of decades?
Angela Duckworth, winner of what is sometimes called the MacArthur Genius Award, has spent a lifetime studying what makes really successful people and has some concrete suggestions on the best way to teach how to shovel snow.
She cautions that it is tempting to think that highly successful people are just that way because they have some special superpowers that the rest of us don’t. To be sure, Duckworth says that athletic prowess, astonishing intelligence, and good business connections can help, but that decades of studying thousands of these people have convinced her that this is not their secret.
She has been hired to figure out such things as why some really good swimmers become Olympians and some don’t, why some students entering West Point can’t withstand the hazing and the academic pressures and others, who appear to be identical, have no problem. In short, what are the intangibles that make for success in life?
She describes the special, intangible quality that she has found in all successful people she has studied as “grit,” perseverance in the face of adversity, the ability to keep keeping on when others quit. Alistair Cooke, the British journalist, described the same quality this way, “A professional is a person who can do his best at a time when he doesn’t particularly feel like it.”
So, why do some people have grit and others don’t? Put another way, how can we learn to be gritty?
At the risk of great oversimplification, Duckworth suggests a couple of practical things. Her primary audience is parents, but her advice is equally applicable for anyone of any age.
First, grit can be learned. It’s not found in anyone’s DNA.
Second, it needs to be practiced by deliberately doing “hard things.” In the case of her own children, each child is required to choose something they’d like to do, that she agrees is a “hard thing.” The child must then stick with it, no excuses, for about 10 to 15 weeks.
Duckworth says that there’s nothing magical about this time period; it’s just that she’s found that most of the things her children chose tended to be about this long because of the season for sports teams, contracts for lessons, etc.
Notice that the person, child or adult, gets to choose the “hard thing,” but, once they’ve chosen it, and this is the important point, they are committed. Doing this time after time, until mastering “hard things” becomes second nature, is the secret to developing grit.
While we don’t want to think about it, there are a number of very important deficits that the blind or visually impaired child or adult, for that matter, confronts. Some are impossible to overcome. Some may be minimized but not eliminated. Developing grit, the factor Duckworth considers essential to success, however, is entirely within our control, and something we can learn. It’s what enables us to shovel our own path and not think twice about it.