The Myth Of Mental Toughness


Jul 14, 2015


For as long as the human race has existed, we’ve had a picture in our heads of what men and women should be like. Traditional thinking was that men are the tough warriors and protectors, while women are the weaker and gentler sex. Thankfully, in the past few decades, we’ve emerged as a society more accepting of men who cry and women who don’t.

But this tolerance doesn’t extend to our children, who are still pressured to be mentally tough. Somehow people believe, whether girl or boy, our children must be made tough to be ready for adulthood.

Generally, this mental toughness is the expectation that a child is able to cope, compete and emerge victorious because their mind is focused enough to muscle its way through challenges and obstacles. It’s not necessarily a bad goal, but often the way we go about instilling it is.

When I watch parents around me yell at their children to “push harder,” to “fight harder,” I worry that these phrases do more harm than good. What happened to learning through experience? Why are we rushing children into these pressures? Why don’t we let them enjoy the beauty of just being a child—instead of a pawn in a rat race?

When parents question, “What more can I do for my child to succeed?” my response is usually, “At what? Your expectations?”

Coaches of children who reach the top often refer to these kids as having a heart of steel and a focused mind. Inspirational words for a 25-year-old, but they mean nothing for a child just at the threshold of discovery. Who can understand what a steel heart or mental focus is at age 10?  And who should?

Constant nagging and impossible expectations mean children begin to harden from frustration rather than build inner strength. They find frustration in their endeavor, rather than the joy of competing. I’ve found this theme in Andre Agassi’s autobiography and more recently, with a young tennis player I know. In a quest for mental toughness, he ended up hating the sport he excelled at and it marred an otherwise happy childhood.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not endorsing laziness or a laidback attitude; I’m only making a case for parents to realise that children need time and support to try, struggle, and sometimes fail. Exchanging harsh words when they fail doesn’t inspire them.  In fact, it does the exact opposite.

From the stands at a recent inter-school karate competition, I watched as a mother almost brought her son to tears because he lost against a competitor who was quicker on his feet, more fearless and strategic. “You fatso,” she berated him. “That’s why I don’t let you eat those burgers!”

I was shocked and alarmed that this is what competition can do to us as parents—turn us into bullies of our own children!

Mental toughness will develop as children participate in life, encounter obstacles, and strive to overcome them. Children will learn to cope and adapt and, most importantly, they will find their ability to survive. This is what we call growing up, and whether well-meaning or not, we cannot force life’s lessons for our children.

What we can do is expose them, pick them up when they fall, and teach them how to stand up again on their own. That is true mental toughness.


Written By Fatema Agarkar

Fatema Agarkar is an educationist and the co-founder of JBCN Education. After graduating from the University of Birmingham (Central England), she worked in a variety of roles as a banker, with the Times of India, and a Swiss executive search firm. She has received awards for her outstanding contribution to education, and has plans to set up foster care centres across India for less fortunate and physically disabled children.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields *.

The latest in health, gender & culture in India -- and why it matters. Delivered to your inbox weekly.