3 Reasons Why I’ll Teach My Kids to Run Marathons

I don’t write about it often, but I’m a father to two wonderful little kids — a four-year-old boy and one-year-old girl.

The obvious question (that people always ask) is whether my wife and I are raising them vegan, and the answer is a qualified yes:

Yes, but we don’t want to choose this lifestyle for them, or to make them resent their plant-based diet and their parents who forced it on them. So we involve our son (and will our daughter too, when she’s old enough) in the garden and in cooking, and we talk to them about why we eat this way. But when they’re old enough to want other foods — say, at a friend’s birthday party — that will be their choice. Outside the home, anyway.

People are less interested in whether we’re raising our kids to be runners, but that’s what I want to write about today. Because the answer is yes. At least, I’m going to try my darndest to steer them toward running marathons when they’re old enough. (Of course, if they just don’t like it, that’s cool too.)

Why running? Why long distances?

Not because “I like marathons, and therefore they should.” Physical fitness entirely aside, I’ve learned that running teaches a lot of important qualities that aren’t so easy to find in other activities these days (cue crotchety old man fist shake at the internet).

Here goes. Three parenting precepts that running perfectly communicates:

Parenting Precept #1: Praise practice rather than innate ability.

The idea here is that if you tell a kid, “Wow, you’re so great at [activity],” that becomes part of her identity, her security. But later, when doubt shows up — and if she pursues that activity, it absolutely will when she encounters a kid who is better at it than she — she has little to fall back on. Suddenly the belief is shattered, and so is the identity.

Instead, reinforce the belief that “I’m as good as I am at [activity] because I work really hard at it.” It’s a much more stable belief, and one that lots of research these days supports as a driver of success (see Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated).

I once heard Brendan Brazier say that the longer the distance of an endurance event, the more ability you have to influence your results through training. This struck me as precisely the reason why I’m a marathoner and ultrarunner: I’m not a gifted athlete, by any stretch of the imagination. But by working hard, I can improve my marathon time by 100 minutes (4:53 down to 3:09) or increase the distance I can run by 100 miles (1 mile back in gym class to 101 miles at Burning River). If I were a miler or a 5K runner, I’m not sure gains of that size (relatively speaking) would be possible.

Running long distances, then, fosters exactly the mindset I’d like my kids to have: “There’s always going to be a kid who can do something better than me, but I have a tremendous ability to improve through hard work.”

Parenting Precept #2: Encourage persistence and the ability to postpone gratification.

You’ve heard about the marshmallow study, right? Put a marshmallow in front of a kid and tell him that if he can resist eating it for 15 minutes, he’ll be rewarded with two marshmallows. If he does, he’s far more likely to be successful (by almost any measure) as an adult than is the child who caves and eats the marshmallow. (Oh, and for those playing along at home, Dandies are a good vegan brand).

Tell me, what is running a marathon if not the ability to persist, to postpone the short-term gratification of quitting?

I’m elated and humbled to be spending the week in author Seth Godin’s office with a small group of other entrepreneur-artist types, and on Monday he not only reminded us of the marshmallow story but also said about marathoners, “Everyone running the marathon feels the pain; the ones who finish are those who find a place to put it.”

Exactly. I’d like to teach my kids to put the pain in a little mental box labeled as such, and not let it get in the way of what they’re trying to accomplish.

Parenting Precept #3: Encourage the ability to question anything labeled “impossible.”

I actually haven’t read this advice in any parenting book, but it’s an extremely high priority among the messages I want to convey to my children. Essentially this: The world only changes for the better when someone who doesn’t know something is impossible (or refuses to believe it) comes along and does it.

More than anything, running long distances has taught me that what seems impossible — not for mankind, but just for me, personally — isn’t. That’s what the first marathon, then qualifying for Boston, then running 50 miles and then running a hundred were all about for me.

And I’m guessing that in most cases, this heroic thwarting of the impossible is what running is about for others, too.

The first time my kids run a mile, a 5K will seem impossible. Just like it did for me. So will every other distance.

The sooner I can help them to see that it’s not, the better.

Because if that turned out to be possible, then who knows what else might be?

PS — For the first time ever, we’re offering kid- and toddler-sized NMA shirts, through a fun, Kickstarter-like company called Teespring. There are only a few hours left — if you’d like your kid to sport the running carrot, help us meet our goal so they get printed!

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Comments

  1. My wife and I are expecting our first child in just a few weeks, so I really connect with this post. I’ve been running marathons for years now and assume at this point it will be a lifelong habit. My dad ran seven marathons in his day and it’s definitely a bond we share now. He never pushed me into it; it’s just something I fell into on my own. I would love for my own son to pick up the lifestyle someday, but it’s not something I want to push him into. I think for now I just plan to lead by example and hope it rubs off on him like it did for me.

  2. kristen says:

    Our 10 1/2 year old son love to run, the longer the distance the more he likes it! He has run lots of 5Ks, several 10Ks and really wants to run a half marathon! I am hoping that he is learning a lot of these great qualities too. Now if only my husband and I could keep up with him…

  3. Absolutely love this, Matt!

  4. Great article, Matt – Spot On.

    In addition to the benefits you mentioned, my daughter also used her half marathon training “story” for High School Papers, College Essays and for her 1st Speech in speech class at Penn State. Of course having content for essays is not life changing but accomplishing feats that give you content make you a much more interesting person.
    keep up the great work

  5. Totally agree. I have three boys and these guidelines totally resonate with how I would like to parent. I don’t always quite get there. Great post.

  6. Number 3 reminds me of one of my favorite all time quotes. It’s by George Bernard Shaw.

    “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

    We’re all a little unreasonable here, aren’t we?

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