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Why I’m proud to be a (sometimes) pushy parent

I’m not at all sure that you can teach ‘grit’. But I’m going to try

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

I took my three boys for a cycle ride in Richmond Park on Sunday. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a good way to relax, but I had to be back home in Acton by 2.15 p.m. for my daughter’s 12th birthday party. Given that we didn’t leave the house until 11 a.m., and were relying on public transport, we were slightly up against it.

We got to the park at noon, which gave us about 75 minutes to complete a seven-mile circuit, allowing for an hour to get home. Just about doable, but only if all three boys went flat out and resisted the urge to get off and push when we were going uphill. The weakest link was seven-year-old Charlie, who still has the same bike he had when he was five. No gears and tiny wheels, so he has to pedal twice as quickly to keep up. There was something both heartwarming and comical about him as he powered forward, his little legs pumping like pistons. From time to time, I would swoop up behind him on my bike, place my hand in the small of his back, and give him a ‘turbo boost’.

He managed to keep going on some of the shallower inclines, but when we came to the really steep hill in the final stretch he slowed to a snail’s pace. By now it was 12.45 p.m. and we only had 30 minutes to complete the circuit and get back to Richmond station.

‘Come on you big Jessie,’ I said, giving him another turbo boost. ‘Give it some welly.’

‘I’ve got to have a rest, Dad,’ he said.

‘A rest? Don’t be pathetic. You’re usually so full of beans.’

‘I’ve run out of beans,’ he said, coming to a stop.

‘But you can’t let the hill defeat you, Charlie. You’ve got to keep going.’

‘IT’S DEFEATED ME,’ he said, hurling his bike to the ground.

To any passers-by witnessing this exchange — and there were several — I must have looked like a typical pushy parent. Worse, a bully. If anyone had intervened and told me to go easy on him, my defence would have been that I was trying to teach him not to give up when the going gets tough. Psychologists refer to this trait as ‘grit’ and there’s quite a lot of evidence that adults who possess it in abundance are likely to lead successful lives.

Of course, that wasn’t the only reason I was urging Charlie on. I was also worried about being late. But I do think it’s my duty as a father to teach my children the value of perseverance, just as my father taught me. Whenever we engage in a physical activity together I quickly turn into a sergeant-major type, exhorting them to try harder and hurling old-fashioned insults at them when they start flagging, such as ‘you big Jessie’.

Will this actually do any good? Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, wants schools to teach ‘grit’, along with other virtues like self-discipline and courage, and the think tank Demos has even suggested that Ofsted should amend its inspection criteria so schools are partly judged according to how well they teach ‘character’. In their view, all children would benefit from being taught these Spartan life skills — what public schools used to refer to as ‘muscular Christianity’.

In the past, I’ve expressed scepticism about whether characteristics like self-discipline can be taught. Numerous studies of identical twins separated at birth suggest that many of the ‘virtues’ that children are supposedly taught on the playing fields of Eton are partly inherited from their parents. Environmental factors have an impact, to be sure, but in complex ways we still don’t fully understand. Research by behavioural geneticists suggests that each child creates their own ‘microenvironment’ and it’s the features of these unique environments that affect personality development, not shared environments, such as families or schools.

Having said that, I don’t suppose I’ll alter my own parenting style. One of the benefits of passing on traits like ‘grit’ to your children via your DNA is that when they start to exhibit them, as they inevitably will, you can congratulate yourself on what a good parent you are. Talk to any father of a successful child for five minutes and you’ll catch him indulging in this vainglorious illusion and, if truth be told, I’m no different. After a minute’s rest, Charlie picked his bike back up, told me he’d got his beans back and then shot up the hill at breakneck speed. I immediately congratulated myself for having taught him a valuable lesson. We got home at 2.15 p.m. on the dot.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • John-Paul Marney

    You worry too much Toby. I am a completely un-pushy parent. Of my 5 children, Tiny Tears is an accountant, Rat Features is an electrician, Chunky Pakoras is about to graduate in accountancy, Chabenezer is going back to uni after dropping out and my youngest, Mr Paws is a very promising historian.

  • splotchy

    The interesting thing will be what your children recall a generation later, or put in your eulogy! Eg, see Edward Kennedy jr’s remarks at his father’s funeral, recalling as a child amputee with cancer and a prosthetic leg, his Dad exhorting him up an icy hill: I tend to read “pushy” as a snide term for “supportive”, usually made by those who have lacked any ‘push’ themselves.

  • Mary Ann

    What a rotten bar steward, before he tries to bully his child he should at least get him a bike that fits.

    • goodsoldier

      His child will learn to overcome obstacles and avoid excuses, no matter how valid. There is always a good excuse about, convenient for lazy, spoiled children.

      In the Israeli army they say: ‘I can’t means I won’t’. I wonder what Hilaire Belloc and Roald Dahl, both of whom knew plenty about children, would have to say about this. I think they would agree with Toby’s muscular Christian upbringing methods. Too bad schools will probably not adopt these methods. It demands too much cooperation of parents or will upset the permissive sorts.

  • Howe Synnott

    Toby Y – teaching grit; probably like teaching parenting – hang in their mate; both you and the kids are on a learning curve.
    With parenting – some is probably genetics and some can be taught. How’s it going up to now?

  • Precambrian

    Maybe grit is best learned by your son standing up to your desperation (which is what pushyness really is) and instead behaving like a gentleman rather than an inelegant grasper?

  • Cymrugel

    Alternatively you could organise your outings within a feasible time frame- a 7 mile circuit for a seven year old in 75 minutes sounds pretty tight to me, especially if that incudes time to get home as well.
    Grit has nothing to do with it. If you are pushing a child, to do an onerous task you need to allow sufficient time.

    • Henry Filth

      It’s the British genius for planning.

      • post_x_it

        We didn’t beat the hun by out-planning him.

        • Henry Filth

          No, you outsourced winning the Second World War to the Soviet Union. And the winning of the Great War ? Uncle Sam.

  • DianneJBrothers

    Some few days to get small deal with specta…. <…. Find Here

  • trace9

    Git pursuing grit. Grit on yer bikes, eh – That Was hard to resist. & What Has happened to Tabbing Tebby.. I bet they were all wearing those stupid plastic crash hlmets, as illus. If so he’s teaching them all to be COWARDS – just like their old git.

  • cartimandua

    nothing wrong with grit but you had created an impossible task for a young child and were in fact being a bully.