Imagination, Helicopters & Grit

Noah and his teammates celebrating sweet victory.

This past Saturday, Noah’s middle school Destination Imagination (DI) team won first place at the NYDI Eastern Regional Tournament and will be moving on to the state competition next month. DI (as it’s referred to by its fans and affiliates) is a creative problem-solving program that teaches kids theatrical and technical skills, independence, leadership, cooperation/teamwork, organization, sportsmanship and brainstorming. (To learn more about DI, click on the link above.)

The structure of the program is this: each DI team chooses a ‘challenge’ that they will resolve over the course of a 6 month period and then present their finished project and research during an 8-minute presentation to be appraised and scored at a region-wide tournament. Noah’s group chose the science challenge, Going To Extremes, which required them to explore an extreme environment that exists in our universe and then present a story (the solution) about how characters (human and/or other) could adapt in order to survive in their chosen extreme environment. The team designed extreme gear to be used for survival, created a life-size model of their environment and wrote a story of their mission including dialogue and music (and jokes!) for the performance. (I’m being vague because Noah insisted that I keep the details of their project a secret–he doesn’t want the winning components leaked to other teams competing at States. I will reveal to you that they made a gorgeous six foot tree out of hemp and recycled potato chip bags (Utz Sour Cream and Onion = green) and a time-keeping clock by measuring and modifying the rate of rainwater dripping into their rainforest cave.)

One of the (many) unique elements of the DI program is the very limited amount of adult input the children receive while working on their challenge. Each team has an adult manager who helps the kids stay on track, but the managers may not directly advise or offer suggestions to team members as they develop their solution to the challenge. DI goes so far as to set an Interference Policy (the kids and adults sign an agreement at the start of the season) obliging the team members to imagine, create and develop solutions on their own. Parents and team managers are not allowed to suggest ideas or force teams toward certain directions or outcomes. We cannot correct their mistakes. Outsiders can only facilitate the acquisition of skills and knowledge, and even then only after the kids ask a specific question and can demonstrate several avenues (besides Google) they’ve investigated in an attempt to figure it out on their own.

The practice of limiting adult input is a tall order for American parents of my generation to fulfill. Our frantic and bloated presence in nearly every nook and cranny of our children’s lives has led to the wide use of the term helicopter parenting–a style of contemporary child rearing in which parents take an overprotective and/or excessive interest in the life of their child or children. Some education experts believe this overindulgence is leading to the development of young adults who are dependent, helpless and lacking in resiliency.

I’m certainly guilty of it.

It’s hard to watch any kid, especially your own, struggle–heck, it’s hard for me to watch my dog struggle–but there’s a lot of research out there now about how struggle is actually good; that kids need to struggle in order to learn and that mistakes create opportunities for growth and investigation and inquiry. I was talking to the other DI parents about this very thing at the tournament on Saturday (as we waited for five hours for the scores to be tallied and the kids climbed trees and rolled around on the still-snow-dusted-hills). We are parents who have children who came to us endowed with an interest in and affinity for academic activities–competent, skilled kids who get good grades and actually don’t need much help at all–and we often assist too much, worry too much, decide too much for them.

Even at 11, Noah can act helpless at times (a lot of the time) and more often than not I succumb to his call. My want for his comfort and happiness and affection takes precedence over my knowledge of child development. Despite the fact that I know better, I assist, I insist and I accommodate. It’s ugly.

Sometimes I really appreciate the way the universe works and how messages come through at the exact moment you need them or, probably more accurately, when you’re paying good enough attention to the lesson you need to learn. On the way home from dropping Noah off at school this morning a story came on NPR’s Morning Edition that essentially confirmed everything that I have been thinking and talking about as I watched Noah blossom during his participation in DI (and as I evaluated–and became disillusioned by–my helicopter ways). The story was about how important it is to teach kids to have grit (persistence, determination and resilience) because having grit is a better predictor of future success than IQ scores or other measures of achievement like grades or awards. The quality of being able to sustain a passion–and work really hard at it over really disappointingly long periods of time–is imperative to long term success.

Grit is the thing imperative to success? Huh. Not having a mother who gives up her passions and her husband for her kid? Not wearing matched socks? Or climbing into a made bed? Or having folded pajamas on the pillow? Or leaving the house with perfectly combed hair?

It’s a theory, of course, the significance of this grit thing…and the tides turn in education as often as they change direction on the big blue sea, but there’s a truth in this idea of teaching grit that I’m going to explore for awhile. I’m tired of all of the over doing that I do. I’m tired of being so tired. I’m also curious if I can hone more grit in my own life. It’s time to let Noah be Noah for awhile and see what happens. (Though I’m still gonna make him brush his teeth 3X a day.) I’ll keep you posted.

A recording and transcript of the whole story is here and it’s worth a listen/read.





































Leave a comment