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.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.