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PERSONAL: Grit. Do Our Children Have It?

Failure. It’s an ugly word. No-one wants to fail and no-one enjoys failure. As parents we do not want to see our children fail either. It is not something you would wish on your worst enemy and so parents are tempted to bail their children out before failure occurs or to cushion their landings so that the pain associated with failure is not as excruciating as it could be, or to remove them from situations so that repeat occurrences cannot take place. It is in our nature as parents to want to defend and protect our children – it’s our duty to do so. At what cost though? Are there lessons in failure that we rob our children of when we don’t allow them to experience it and when we don’t teach them to get back up and face their challenges head on so that they develop perseverance skills and determination? Do we allow our children to develop true grit?

At this past weekend’s SA JKA Karate Championships in Johannesburg, it became clear to me that karate builds grit. It’s a tough sport that requires fitness, agility and perseverance. There are many teaching moments. From the time of team selection when the child commits to Saturday SA training sessions, to dealing with tough (but caring) Senseis and Sempais, to the moment that child steps onto the floor in the competition, true grit is being instilled in that child. But it doesn’t end there. The competition itself requires a child to dig deep. It’s a brave step, especially for the very little ones, to leave the safety of mom in the stands, to walk down onto a floor that is far way from mom’s caring arms, to sit there and wait their  turn and then to perform to the best of their ability as they fall back on the teachings of their Senseis and do their intricate katas. That is a skill on its own. And those that lose, that fail in their own eyes, they have to dig deepest of all. They have to accept that they haven’t achieved what they were hoping for, have worked for. They have to dig deep not to lay blame at anyone else’s door – the opponents or the referees. That’s the easy way out. They have to face their own shortcomings and dig deep to stand tall and say to themselves – “I WILL come back next year!” That is true grit.



Then in the kumite, especially for the older students, those who participate in the free fighting, where contact is possible and most likely inevitable, they have to dig deep again when receiving a punch to head or nose. It takes true grit to face the pain and work through it. It takes even more grit to turn and face your opponent again, when all you want to do is run and hide and deal with your pain. It takes true grit to go through round after round, knowing that the chances of another knock are high and it takes even more grit to realise and accept  that you have done your best when you win a Bronze medal, not the Gold one you had been hoping for. It takes grit to to accept that your loss is actually a win, when you have been competing amongst an elite group of youngsters and you have taken your knocks, when you have fallen but risen again. It takes grit to realise that you have achieved what many others haven’t. And that grit means that you WILL be back next year to try again.

So, what can we as parents learn from this? What is grit? The dictionary definition of grit is this: “courage and resolve; strength of character”. By bailing our children out (and believe me, I am just as guilty, I often am tempted to bail my children out) we teach them that it is okay not to see things through to the end, or that if the going is too tough, then it’s okay not to try again. We teach them that failure is bad and we rob them of these teaching moments.

I wonder sometimes whether in today’s social media-connected world a parent’s need to protect their children from failure at all costs isn’t more about what other people will think? As hard as it is for a parent to witness their child experiencing failure, it is one of the best lessons that you can afford your child. By allowing your child to fall and then rise up again you instil true grit, determination and perseverance. You build character. That doesn’t mean that you leave your children to fail, but that you are next to them to help them to deal with failure, to give them coping mechanisms to help them stand tall again, to stand by them through thick and thin as they navigate through childhood, and by giving them opportunities to develop true grit, such as with karate.

This is the best gift you can give your child.