You Want Tough (But Practical) Kids

The hunter Steven Rinella was raised by a tough father and has spent his whole adult life working outdoors—tracking and hunting in some of the most inhospitable places on earth. You gotta be tough to do that…and whatever your thoughts on hunting, any parent would be proud to raise a kid who could survive like Rinella can, let alone master a profession they really enjoy.

Rinella (whose wonderful book American Buffalo is worth reading) has talked about something he thinks about on nearly every hunt. “There’s a fine line between being practical and being a candyass,” he writes, “which is a word that my father used to describe someone whom he considered to be the opposite of tough. When I’m in the woods and I run into a situation that seems like a bad idea, whether it’s climbing up a steep icy mountainside or taking a canoe through a nasty stretch of rapids, I always ask myself which of these two words, practical or candyass, best defines my decision making.”

As we follow this philosophy of luctor et emergo—letting our kids struggle so they can become tough and independent—this is an important distinction. We want them to be tough, resilient, sturdy. But we want them to be practical also. Being able to survive in difficult, punishing, dangerous scenarios is an admirable asset. To seek out unnecessary danger, needless punishment, or unsolvable adversity…is to squander that asset out of ego or external expectation.

Even Rinella has talked about his struggles with this dilemma, how the potential judgment of his father sometimes hangs over him. “Sometimes, it’s a difficult determination to make,” he writes. “Because I’m very afraid of becoming a candyass, I’ll sometimes do things that I know to be impractical just so I don’t have to worry about being a candy ass.”

Boys have been renowned through the ages for doing stupid, dangerous things not to test their mettle, but to prove to friends, to girls, often to demanding fathers, how tought they are. Unfortunately,  too many boys are also reluctant to do the toughest thing of all—be practical—and go to therapy or ask for help, for fear of looking weak. Too many girls have this problem as well—afraid of expressing weakness or speaking up because they don’t want to look like they can’t handle difficult situations.

We want our kids to be tough…but only as tough as a situation calls for. We want them to be practical too, to use their brains as well as their brawn, their words as well as their will. A happy, healthy, resilient life requires a balance of both.

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