New goals

The recent New York Times magazine features an article about what New York City private schools are teaching kids. They are teaching optimism, resilience and grit – three traits found to be most important to adult success.

I left New York City in 2006, just as I had paid $10,000 to a consultant to get us into private nursery school for my oldest son. I am not kidding when I tell you that I cashed out my 401K to pay the fee. Don’t tell me it was stupid, okay? I know. But I’m telling you to show you how scared I was that my kid would not get into a good nursery school.

The New York Times reports that it’s tougher to gain admission to these NYC nursery schools than it is to get into Harvard. I believe it. These schools are places I would feel safe sending my kid. But it’s $40,000 a year. For eighteen years. What was I thinking?

Martin Seligman is the guy who’s directing these expensive public schools from his academic perch at Penn. He says grit involves vision, persistence and self-discipline  –  setting a goal and working to it til you get it.

I have no grand plan for how to teach grit. At least not yet. But each day I force myself to get out of bed and face that I have no idea what to do with the kids. I hope for a lot of things each time I do that, and one thing I hope is that I’m modeling grit.

19 replies
  1. Lori
    Lori says:

    i think you’re on the right track. the nyt article/seligman talks about the “deeper success” of “a happy, meaningful, productive life.” for it to be happy, it has to be meaningful. for it to be meaningful, it has to be based on authentic interests, talents, and passions. for it to be productive, you have to learn to stick with things that are difficult, while you slowly learn to succeed. you just need to figure out how to help your kids work on what’s important to them, so they’ll be motivated to work through their difficulties.

  2. leftbrainfemale
    leftbrainfemale says:

    Penelope – I believe you’re on the right track as well. It’s funny, my girls still chuckle when I bring up a line they learned from “Child’s History of the World”. I occasionally paraphrase – “it’s as immovable or unchangeable as the laws of the Medes & the Persians”. They know that means that I am insistent that it shall be done – no matter what. We have to kind of look at some things in that way – we have to not let anything stop us from doing that which we know to be beneficial – no matter how uncomfortable we may be in the short term, knowing that the successful completion of any challenge will give us a positive on which to build.

    I’ve said for years that I felt that the most important thing I could impart to my kids while homeschooling was the quality of a good character. Character will carry one through all kinds of struggles – it doesn’t allow one the option of giving up. It starts simply with insistence on getting up, getting dressed, making beds, etc. Making those good habits that are not easily broken – ‘cuz to this day, if I leave my bed unmade, I feel like a slug! I haven’t always succeeded in getting my kiddo’s to follow my example in that area, but I’m hoping they’ll grow into it as I did. Something about working from home and keeping my children at home helped me to realize that if I didn’t set standards for myself each and every day, I would fall into slovenly habits, and none of us would succeed.

    Dad always taught me that there are two kinds of people in the world – those who ARE characters, and those who HAVE character. Sometimes I’ve been both – but I’d rather have it than be it!

    Just read the quickie book by Steven Pressfield “Do the Work” with which I found myself in complete agreement. I have a great tendency personally to procrastinate, and his words were helpful to renew my spirit of perseverance.

  3. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    Looks like New York is becoming competitive like the Japanese school process. I dread the day when the whole country is like this.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      No worries there. There is no population in the US outside of NYC that could afford the type of private school shennanigans that are going on in NYC right now.


  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think it’s important to know what’s happening at the prestigious schools in NYC and elsewhere but to not get too caught up and worried when making the comparisons. Teach your sons to know themselves and be the best they can be. This segways me to Dakota Meyer, the Marine who has been in the news a lot lately due to his heroics on the battlefield and recipient of the Medal of Honor. He’s a high school graduate with a public education. No college degree and yet his character performance is off the charts IMO. I’m not aware of his scholastic aptitude but it seems to me that he will be successful in life whatever he decides to do. Thanks for the interesting article on grit. Hopefully the lessons learned in the most expensive schools can be passed on and implemented by all educators regardless of the setting (public, private, and homeschoolers).

  5. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I am not convinced you can teach someone optimism, resilience or grit. I tend to believe a lot of these qualities are ingrained to different degrees at birth; these traits can be fostered, but not really taught. I think what you are really teaching is how to define “success.” When I think of it that way, parenting becomes more personal, more meaningful, and far scarier.

  6. Hazel
    Hazel says:

    I’m not sure that you teach resiliency and grit by letting your kid drop out of school after feeling some discomfort and a couple of boring worksheets.


    I had some traumatic experiences in public elementary school, but I think they did more to build the character elements you are hoping to instill in your children than the time I spent hanging around in malls.

    • Lori
      Lori says:

      The difference between the situation described in the article you linked to and Penelope’s son’s situation is that the situation in the article could (and did) change. Those children were in a very challenging situation and they rose to the challenge. Penelope’s son can do what do change his situation? His teacher and his principal agree that he should do work that is boring for him and far beneath his abilities. What can he do to fix that? Apply himself harder to coloring in the triangles and writing “2”? There’s nothing he can do; his situation cannot be improved. The only way for him to get an appropriate education is, evidently, to leave that school.

  7. Alesya
    Alesya says:

    On teaching grit – When I was about 9 I broke my lace at the skating rink. Of course, I called my Mom and had her come get me. She was upset. “Alesya, you are smarter than this! You could have solved the problem and kept on skating…what about tying the broken pieces together? Or asking if anyone else if they had an extra set? You can be creative.” It really taught me that I could figure things out. And not just to give up. I’d call it grit.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh, I love this story, Alesya. It confirms a hunch I have, which is that if I am the best person that I can be then I can give those character traits to my kids.

      I want to think in terms of persistence and grit so that I give shoelace lectures as well.


  8. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    You might find this amusing. A techie blogger is writing his autobiography.

    There are concerns from all of my teachers that I am not doing my homework. My grades are bad. I am threatened with detention if I don’t begin doing my assignments. It’s unfortunate, but between programming, discovering computer architecture, writing my columns, reading sci-fi classics, and maintaining an imaginary portfolio and company, I just don’t have time to do my homework.

    At this rate, I’ll never learn anything in school.

  9. Sacha
    Sacha says:

    Don’t optimism, resilience, and grit come naturally from life on the farm? I had the impression that The Farmer had these characteristics & your sons were picking them up from your life there.

  10. ceceilia
    ceceilia says:

    After two years of reading your blog, it’s time to come out of the shadows to say…

    I was homeschooled from birth through high school for religious reasons. My parents sheltered me so much that someone had to explain sarcasm to me at the age of 19. I had never heard the word.

    You would think that I would have turned out to be a naive pushover. Think again!

    When I finally got out of that mess (and it was a mess) I was able to address my past and future in the same way I taught myself algebra. I observed folks, made notes, mimicked successful social strategies, and learned how to navigate by recreating the experience I never had. I also asked questions–many of which I didn’t know were really, really, really hard questions–because that was the only way I could learn to be a human being with a modium of normalcy.

    Without the ability to teach myself, I would have been totally lost, and I am thoroughly convinced that grit is just another way of characterizing someone’s commitment to learning. If learning is the imperative then anything and everything has to be explored, understood and reckoned with–even that which destroys learning.

    Your boys are going to be just fine, because they have someone in their lives who is inquisitive to a fault and dedicated to helping them learn to learn. For a kid, you are a total blessing.

  11. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I was in the store today in the magazine and book section. I didn’t realize until today that there’s a magazine named Grit and it can be found online at (you guessed it) –
    http:// . Check it out – Rural American Know-How.

  12. Kusandra
    Kusandra says:

    I would add confidence and manners to this list. These are the tools which I think my son will need to have a life of meaning and money earning.

  13. Catherine
    Catherine says:

    Dr. Martin Seligman homeschooled several of his children.

    “Ms. Seligman was a graduate student in psychology when she had their baby and decided she did not want to leave an infant at home and go off to study attachment theory.

    Once at home, she decided that educating her children was a natural progression of the teaching a parent does, and she decided not to send them to school, a choice her husband supported because it meant that when he traveled, all of them could be together.

    Their home classrooms look like those in the best schools, with lots of engaging charts on the walls, artwork everywhere, butterflies in the process of being born and ants wending their way through tunnels, with occasional obstructions from strawberry-peach yogurt.”

  14. Paul
    Paul says:

    I don’t think grit is simple at all. It involves about 10 per cent learning ways around the rat race and 90 per cent devotion to your own personal rat race, which often means all the same tension, sucking-up, and running-in-place without the promise of society’s approval at the end of the rainbow.

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