The Fortitude to Try Again

Luke Eplin notes with disappointment what is obvious to any perceptive parent: Kids’ entertainment is rife with unrealistic portrayals of inevitable success (citing here specifically Turbo and Planes, neither of which I’ve seen):

In addition to disparaging routine labor, these films discount the hard work that enables individuals to reach the top of their professions. Turbo and Dusty don’t need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did. It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world’s most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents.

It’s not just the more vapid movies, though. Think of even the good stuff like Harry Potter: a boy who has never practiced magic in his life, didn’t even realize he was capable of it, shows up to wizard school and becomes an unbeatable messiah figure pretty damned fast (not to mention his equally miraculous instant expertise at Quidditch). Never mind that he ignores his studies and spends more time creeping around the castle unlocking secrets and intrigue. He learns to believe in himself!

They are, in many ways, the perfect role models for a generation weaned on instant gratification.

I’m not so sure it’s directly related to instant gratification as it is magic gratification. Rather than “mommy give me this now,” it’s “I will become this without having to learn how.” I hoped things would be this way for me when I was a kid. I hoped I’d be an instantly-discovered child star without ever really having to train at anything exhausting like dance or combat. See how that turned out.

Anyway, Eplin finds the counter-example, not The Boy Who Lived, but The Boy Who Kept Failing:

A Boy Named Charlie Brown might come across now as harsh and unforgiving—especially to audiences that aren’t familiar with the comic strip’s cruel undercurrents—but its lessons are more enduring than those from movies where characters fulfill their impossible dreams. Charlie Brown learns through Linus’s tough-love speech that failure, no matter how painful, is not permanent, and that the best means of withstanding it is simply to show up the next day to school with the fortitude to try again. Losing also forces Charlie Brown to come to terms with his own limitations. He can’t rely on a miraculous victory to rescue him from his tormented childhood. He followed his dream, it didn’t pan out, and he ends up more or less where he started, only a little more experienced and presumably with a little more respect from his peers. They may no longer be able to refer to him as “failure-face,” but Lucy still yanks away the football when he becomes too hopeful. It’s incremental, rather than life-altering, progress.

Though I wished to be whisked away to success, I had a deep sympathy with Charlie Brown. Though I had yet to really experience what it was like to be reviled by my peers, I quickly felt like Charlie Brown and I were of a kind. It’s debatable whether this is a good thing.

But still, I have this tension in mind for my own children, between belief in oneself, and a realistic grasp of and respect for effort. I want them to know that while thinking positively (“believing”) can help fuel their will to work and improve themselves, they still must put in the work. I make a point of remembering not just to praise them for what they’ve accomplished, but how they’ve made the attempt — for trying rather than winning, for learning and asking questions rather than knowing. No one is really Harry Potter, but they don’t have to be Charlie Browns either, not all the time, anyway.

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