Teaching Toughness

By Ron Ciancutti

Comedian/actor Dennis Leary has written several books that have the same common-sense, knock-you-upside-the-head candor. Also, Leary’s voice can be heard on the Ford truck commercials urging viewers to “listen up” and “get it straight.” He’s become an icon of the tough-guy attitude and the whole “get-over-yourself” mindset.


I identify with his pleas to the men in this country to “just stop whining.”

In some of his writings, he has actually thanked the former bullies in his life as well as his older brothers for making him tougher.

He talks about how people try to instill proper values and morals into their kids by sending them to activities like karate lessons and Pee Wee football.

But he notes that lessons like those are the result of rules, polite ones and essentially with a “safety net” that guards young men from ever having to face a real threat. He also points out that when one is faced with an old-fashioned “butt-whipping”—the individual learns that sometimes he has to fight and essentially “man up.”

Getting A Gut Check
On October 3, 2012, President Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney stepped to the podium for the first presidential debate. Obama was clearly under-prepared and seemed to count on his calm, cool reputation to get him through. Romney was very aggressive and came at Obama from every angle. The next day, the country’s approval rating of Romney soared, and the president even admitted he suffered a sound defeat from the Republican candidate.

That evening awakened a renewed and invigorated Obama, who went on to win the election. Just when the president figured he could coast for the rest of the election, the first debate provided a “gut check,” and he spent the rest of the campaign on fire, realizing he couldn’t “phone it in.” This was a real fight.

Most of us are this way. We work hard for a while, find a comfort zone, and then coast. It’s a bad habit, but it’s real because our enthusiasm wanes.

Counting The Days
Lately I’ve been hearing about a people-management concept in business that recognizes staff members’ “highest point of contribution.” The theory is that dependable, can-do people often get buried due to their reliability, and their chance to really shine is hindered by repetitive, mundane assignments. Supervisors know the staff members will deliver a reliable, solid product, so they are given this task over and over, but rarely does this repetitiveness encourage talent development.

Rather, employees become bored, pigeon-holed, or worst of all—complacent. Once that complacency sets in, the once-challenged staff members fall into a sheep-following mode where they simply get a paycheck, pay the bills, and count the days until retirement.

Lay The Groundwork
Well, as noted in The Shawshank Redemption, one can either “get busy living or get busy dying.” If one decides to continue living, the road will fork, become rocky, and be difficult to pass, requiring one to hurdle over, tunnel under, slip by, or barge through. This is called “building character.”

Much like confronting the bullies in Leary’s stories, one may have to test oneself to see how far will-power will succeed.

Here follow a few ideas for shaping our children to make sure they are not soft, intimidated, or likely to quit:

1. Enforce the rule that, if they begin an activity or sport, they must participate to the end of the season. This teaches focus and commitment, and encourages them not to quit merely because they become bored or are otherwise distracted. Chances are good their interests will be renewed, and they’ll be glad they stuck with it.

2. As parents, we are the visual example. We should live by the words we preach, stay committed to a project, and not complain about the unfair advantages of others. If parents teach kids to be winners, but also to learn how to lose with grace, this world will be a nicer place.

3. We should acknowledge a child’s accomplishments, and use tact when discussing the need for improvement. It’s OK to remind a child to be more alert while playing the outfield or to observe closely the conductor while playing an instrument. We should be engaged but not smothering. For example, “That was a great catch.” And some time later, “It looked like you were a little surprised when the ball came to you. Have you memorized all of your plays? I can help you with that.”

4. As parents, we must keep a long perspective and use the activity as a teaching point. “Remember how you felt when the coach took you out after you walked two batters in a row? You wanted to prove you could get it right, but he didn’t give you the chance. How do you think your sister felt when she was trying to explain what happened, and you wouldn’t even let her talk?” The lessons kids experience are the ones they will remember. By seizing the moment, we can help them engrain the lesson.

There are only a few “actual moments” in a person’s life when the pressure is high and one’s reaction is truly critical. Most of life is lived within the soft margins of “close enough” decisions, but now and then one needs to draw on wit and imagination to make a snap call.

The better we know ourselves and what we are capable of, the more likely will be a favorable outcome.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.