I like to think of myself as a resilient person. There’s not much that upsets me. I have no particular fear of what others say or think about me, my teaching or my books. I can bounce back from knockdowns with a smile on my face. And so, I’ve been trying to work out why all this talk of ‘instilling character’ makes me so uncomfortable. Why the term ‘resilience’ makes me grind my teeth. Because it does, and over the years I’ve learned that it is important (to me, at least) to take my instinctive reactions into account.
When I think back to my own childhood, it’s pretty easy to identify the things that toughened me up, that made me resilient in later life. And none of them are things that I would wish on my own children, or on anyone else’s. One was the messy breakdown of my parents’ marriage. As a young child this was painful, distressing and confusing to me. We went from playing (apparently) happy families, to a long, dark period of anger, depression and hardly any money. Then there were several years of being schooled in a climate of fear – terror has a habit of toughening a small person up. After that there was verbal and physical bullying at secondary school, and some other stuff that I don’t like to talk about. And to top it all off, there were the incredibly exacting demands of training as a professional dancer – being told you’re too fat, not good enough, that kind of thing.
In many ways, my own children have life soft and easy. We expect them to be polite, and to take responsibility, but we rarely shout at them. They are most certainly not afraid, of us, or of their teachers. We have helped them become adaptable, and learn to cope with change, by travelling a lot. But we don’t put masses of pressure on them to succeed in academic terms. Above all else, we want them to be happy. And if that means they are a little softer, a little squishier than they might otherwise be, then so be it.
Childhood is a very short and precious part of a person’s life. It is a time when the pressures of the adult world are (or should be) far, far away. This should be a time of friends, and joy, and laughter, and play, of the Tooth Fairy and of Santa. It is deeply sad that there are so many children who do not get to experience their childhood in this way. Now I have no doubt that there are many schools out there doing the most wonderful work in helping their children become strong, and tough, and resilient (not least because teachers are so great at making silk purses out of whatever sow’s ear the government hands them). But let’s just be careful not to wish away this most special, incredibly fleeting part of our children’s lives. Let’s not tell children that there are “no excuses” for not being good enough. (Especially when some of them come from a background where grit is already being thrown at them in spadefuls.)
Character is not something we can impose, nor is it something we can instill. Character is in everyone already, and so it is something we must draw out, and nurture, and tend, and encourage to grow. Because too much grit has a habit of destroying your paintwork. And you only need a tiny bit of grit in an oyster, to end up with a pearl.