When it comes to compelling TV, it's really hard to beat a combination of adorable kids and white knuckle competition. Which is one great reason to tune into the Scripps National Spelling Bee today. Some amazing are participating, including an incredibly precocious six year old and a 11-year-old boy who is a top contender despite being born deaf.
But according to at least one expert, the annual showcase of weird words and sweetly serious kids shouldn't just be required viewing for language buffs. The competition has something to teach any parent hoping to raise resilient kids.
A growing body of research shows that, when it comes to real-world success, the ability to stick with tough challenges matters more than talent. In the long race of life, grit beats smarts. And as Harvard sociologist and author Hilary Levey Friedman pointed out on Psychology Today a few years back, the "Scripps National Spelling Bee demonstrated how competition can help teach kids resilience."
The secret ingredient for spelling bee greatness? Losing a lot
In the piece, Levey Friedman points out just how much much perseverance would-be spelling bee champions have to show to reach the top. Many of the kids you'll see on stage tonight have tried and failed for years to reach the final competition. In 2013, "third-place finisher Sriram Hathwar competed on the national stage in 2008, 2009, and 2011, but missed out in 2010 and 2012," she notes.
That's a lot of failure to push through, but that is the essential lesson of the competition for parents. Building opportunities to really fail and recover into your child's life is essential if you want to raise resilient kids, insists Levey Friedman. The process can sometimes be hard for parents to watch, but it's incredibly valuable in the long term.
This is something the families of spelling bee champions understand well. "To be able to keep going back [after losses] is tough. I've seen him be discouraged at a lot of these tournaments," one Spelling Bee mom told Levey Friedman. "He might get a little discouraged, but he still wants to go. So I think it does create some kind of an ability to face defeat and put your successes into some context."
"The winning and losing is phenomenal. I wish it was something that I learned because life is really bumpy. You're not going to win all the time and you have to be able to reach inside and come back," said another parent.
Of course, the lesson isn't that enrolling your kid in spelling bees specifically is essential. Levey Friedman's main point is that any real competition -- not just over-friendly "tournaments" where everyone gets a trophy -- might knock your kids around a little (there's even a dedicated 'crying couch' at the National Bee), but it will teach them to weather failure. And that's what grit is all about.
"Amber, Arvind, and so many competitive kids know how to handle fourth place, first place, or even fortieth place because of their experiences in tournaments in their youth," she writes of past Spelling Bee stars. "Competition not only teaches them how to be resilient and come back next time to try for first again, it can even teach them how to spell r-e-s-i-l-i-e-n-t."