In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough outlines (p. 81) how affluence can play a menacing role in the character development of our children. This was a significant ‘ah hah’ for the staff at the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy (VSSA). It provided us with some thoughtful ideas about how we can better set up our kids to succeed. Namely, by developing experiences so challenging and meaningful that repeated failure was likely. This can be a scary thing for parents who have dreamt up the perfect life for their child. This parent dream typically does not involve much struggle and pain for their precious offspring. Instead, it looks like an infinitely long string of success followed by more winning and less adversity. Unfortunately, the most meaningful experiences we have as humans involve real risk of failure.
What that means is when parents meddle in the outcomes of their child’s activities with an interest in preventing failure we are often subverting their opportunity at a meaningful experience. Imagine an adult who after dozens of years has not actually faced a meaningful experience. What a strange and dysfunctional society we will be living in! The irony is that when families lack resources, they often wish they were affluent. Meanwhile, families with significant affluence can sometimes wish that their lives had more meaning. Crazy! The best way to develop this meaning is by fostering real challenges for the kids in our community.
Schools have an important part to play in establishing tasks for their students that require real solutions at the risk of real failure. It is not enough to spoon feed kids with answers to stale questions. It is not enough to provide sets of computational problems that have no real connection with anything. Dan Meyer, a leading math education theorist, explains it well (in this TED presentation) when he says that our kids lack initiative and lack perseverance. We adults have no one but ourselves to blame for this phenomenon. We have conditioned our kids to lack the sort of grit that society will eventually require of them. Some say that is because many American kids have not faced dramatic challenges since WWII. Others say that the television or nutrition is to blame.
Most meaningful change begins with ourselves. If each of us is committed to improving the way kids succeed then we must pursue more information on the topic. We must create a common dialogue with meaningful action steps. At VSSA, our staff has been provided How Children Succeed as their summer reading. We also provided this book to all the program directors at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. Our plan is to develop grit among our student-athletes through meaningful experiences that develop character and face the real possibility of failure. As Thomas Edison once said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
At VSSA, we are proud to say that out of 355 High Schools in the state of Colorado our 2014 ACT scores rank 13th. (CO ACT Data) We are also proud to have supported dozens of athletes in their transition to the US Ski Teams, including four athletes in the Sochi Olympics. But academics and athletics are not the only areas of development. We want to see kids develop the level of grit they need to overcome whatever adversity they may face in life. When we are all old and tired, looking back over our past life, it is perseverance -above academics and athletics- that will be the greatest gift we provide our kids.
Geoff Grimmer is the Headmaster of the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy