Hard Fun

Are “fun” and “hard” mutually exclusive?

July 22, 2018

Ask one of the kids in your life how they feel about getting back into their school routine.

What will they say?

Maybe when you were their age, midsummer thoughts of backpacks, textbooks, and homework filled you with giddy anticipation. But the vast majority of American kids say that in comparison to other things they do with their time, school is an unappealing combination of very hard and very unfun.

In contrast, hanging out with their friends is way more fun and not especially hard.

Are “fun” and “hard” mutually exclusive? Is the expression “hard fun” an oxymoron?

I don’t think so.

Can you think of anything you did as a kid that was hard and yet, on the whole, something you felt really motivated to do? Maybe you played a sport. Perhaps you wrote for the school newspaper. Or participated in community service.

Research by Character Lab grantee Reed Larson shows that extracurricular activities are the most reliable way for kids to experience challenge and motivation at the same time. In other words, for most kids, hard fun is typically experienced outside the classroom.

Figure adapted from Larson (2011)

Here are five recommendations for helping the kids in your life experience more hard fun:

  1. Practice practice. Require that your kids choose a “hard thing”—any activity that requires practice with feedback from a teacher or coach.
  2. Let them choose. The desire to make independent choices is a fundamental human need. Within reason, kids of all ages should be encouraged to choose their own hard thing. What’s more, they should also be encouraged to choose a “fun thing”—an activity so intrinsically enjoyable that left to their own devices, they’d do it for hours. If their “fun thing” and their “hard thing” are different for a few years, don’t worry. That’s typical. But make it a goal that by the end of high school, at least one activity is both hard and fun.
  3. Commit to one-for-one. Poor kids in this country don’t have nearly the same access to extracurricular activities as rich kids do. If you have the means to sign up your son or daughter for ballet class, look at the tuition bill. If you can afford it, donate the same amount to a nonprofit, like Harlem Children’s Zone, that enables other kids to do the same.
  4. Demonstrate integrity. I’ve talked to a lot of deans of admissions over the years. Believe me, these deans have gotten very good at telling the difference between authentic passion and resume padding. Besides, it’s never too early for kids to practice the character strength of integrity. Share with your kids your conviction that the worst reason to sign up for an activity is that it will “look impressive” on their college applications.
  5. Honor commitments. It’s only human to get discouraged by lack of early progress. Also, quitting one hard thing (say, at the end of a season or after a big recital) to pick up another hard thing is absolutely fine. However, because learning how to persevere through frustration is part of growing up, loving parents don’t let their kids quit on a bad day.

I wish school were more fun for more kids. I think one day it will be.

But I also think that kids will never learn all there is to know about the world, and themselves, between homeroom and the last bell of the day.

With grit and gratitude,

Tags: Grit

About the author

Angela Duckworth is a co-founder of Character Lab, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.