I watched as those tiny legs pedaled as fast as they could go. The handlebars twisted and turned, unsteady as she fought to stay upright. I yelled words of encouragement, but cringed on the inside, worrying that she was going to fall. The oversized melon-shaped helmet perched on top of her head made her petite frame seem even smaller in comparison and more fragile. But from my viewpoint, that helmet continued to get smaller and smaller as she pedaled further away from me.
“Look, Mom, I’m doing it!” Avery yelled.
And she was doing it. I couldn’t believe it.
We took the training wheels off her bicycle almost a year ago. She was thrilled at the idea of riding her bike like a big kid until, that is, she discovered what it feels like to be unbalanced. She tried it a couple of times, but she was afraid.
“Mom, I don’t want to fall,” she said.
I couldn’t really argue. I don’t want to fall off of my bike either. I remember having a few painful scraped knees as a kid and then deciding that nope, I didn’t want to risk it again. I became afraid. More careful. More reserved.
Being careful is a good thing. Careful people get hurt less and often make better decisions. I am glad that she is careful and thoughtful about her choices, but I started to notice a pattern that perhaps wasn’t such a good thing.
There have been a lot of things that have come very easily for my girl. She is smart and creative, and she’s gotten a lot of praise and recognition for those things. But I saw that when there were things that she wasn’t good at right away, she would give up almost immediately.
That characteristic came into full view for me as Everett’s personality began to unfold. If he doesn’t master something right away, he becomes more interested in it. He will just keep at it, patiently trying over and over again until he gets it. I began to see a sharp contrast between the two of them.
The more I thought about it, I realized that this quality of persistence in the face of a challenge is really important.
Most of the time at this stage of parenting a kindergartener and toddler, we focus on the things our kids need right now. We want them to learn their numbers and their alphabet sounds, to read before they reach kindergarten or score more soccer goals than their peers.
Those are all fine, but I’m taking the long view.
I’m confident my kids will learn their numbers and their letters. We’ve got that. But, I want to know what qualities will carry my kids through to adulthood? What will help them learn to love themselves and others well? What will allow them to find fulfillment and joy as they become adults? What characteristics can I help them develop while they’re young that will help them achieve their dreams when they’re older, whatever those dreams might be?
I don’t think anybody can give a definitive answer to those questions, but I’ve come back to the idea many times that the courage to keep going even when things get rough might just be the key. Some people call it grit.
From time to time, people who hear my personal story for the first time will ask me, “How did you do it?”
“How did I do what?” is always my response.
“You know, how did you come from where you came from, with all the craziness and dysfunction, to have the life you have now?”
I have never really had a great answer for that, but perhaps it comes down to two important things. God has given me heaps of grace- undeserved, unearned favor that I cannot explain. And with His grace, for some reason unknown to me, He also gave me grit.
In a recent Ted talk, researcher Angela Duckworth defines grit this way:
Passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.
Sticking with your future, day in and day out… for years and working really hard to make that future a reality.
Living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
What’s really interesting to me is that success in the classroom and in life isn’t dependent on how quickly you learn. The smartest kids aren’t necessarily going to be the most successful. I certainly was not always the smartest kid in the class. In fact, I remember very clearly one of the defining moments of my adolescence. In the tenth grade, my math teacher told a group of us who weren’t yet heading to calculus that we’d never be the doctors and scientists of the world. And while that should have been incredibly discouraging to me, proving that teacher wrong was motivation that carried me through many years of undergraduate and graduate math and science classes.
It’s true that I was more naturally gifted in language than math and science, but I was determined to prove it to myself and everyone else that I could do it. I had many setbacks- calculus and physics were very nearly the end of me. I had to try more than once to master them, and even then I barely scraped by. I think, however, that ultimately the success is owed not to sheer intellect but to the desire to keep trying, even in the face of failure. Somehow I found this grit, this ability to pick myself back up after falling down. And when I look at my own kids, I realize that it simply isn’t realistic or helpful to expect them never to fall down. What I want to teach them instead is to dust themselves off and keep trying even after they’ve fallen down.
And that is why when Avery took off down the street riding her bike without training wheels for the first time, I was overjoyed. Because I have been talking to her about trying again even if you fail. I have reminded her that you can’t be good at everything the first time you try; if you want to be good at something, you have to keep working on it.
She has learned how to ride her bike now, but it has come with many bumps and scrapes. Her tiny legs are so covered in bruises and band-aids that I cringe when I look at them. But each of those small marks are nothing compared to the lasting joy and satisfaction she has felt by mastering what she previously thought was impossible.
Learning to ride her bike was a leap of faith- a decision she made to keep trying even if it hurt. She made the choice to endure some hardship to achieve her goal, and she learned a lesson that is going to carry her farther than her bicycle ever will.