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Thursday, May 12, 2016 12:03 am

Raising kids with grit

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, a man of True Grit.


If grit still makes you think of sandpaper or southern breakfasts, you haven’t been paying attention. In the past few years, grit has become an important buzzword in the study of children’s development and education.

As my now 4-year-old daughter was learning how to dress herself, she would frequently fly into a blind rage at her bunched up pants or sideways undies. Flummoxed at these angry outbursts, I often wished (let’s be honest, I currently wish) her more grit. Turns out, wishing is not actually the best way to get it.

Obviously, grit has always existed, but has become more of a priority for children in recent years, as it -- not intelligence -- has been proven to more accurately predict success. Researcher Angela Duckworth names grit as the most valuable of “non-cognitive skills,” which also include curiosity, resilience and self-control. She has defined it as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. She has developed a “grit scale,” a quiz that ranks your level of grit from your self-reported answers to a series of questions. It has accurately predicted who will do well at both West Point and the National Spelling Bee.

For many years, intelligence was considered the key to success. When kids get gritty, not only are they more poised for academic success (and later, professional success), they build emotional intelligence, a vital tool for social development. But because our high-tech culture promises instant results, kids may not naturally pick up the understanding that good things come from good work. It can appear that some people are just naturally lucky or gifted. So how do we cultivate grit in our children?

As parents, one of the most important ways we teach is with our own behavior. Modeling grit is no less important than modeling politeness and consideration toward others. Like other personality traits, such as introversion and extroversion, Duckworth argues that grit can change over time, so don’t worry if you haven’t won any medals for tenacity in the past. The first step is awareness. Notice how you handle challenges and setbacks; instead of focusing on the obstacles, ask yourself, “Why not me?” Look at your friends – spend more time bonding with the non-quitters around you, as well as people who take more risks. Pay attention to the effort you and others put forth and praise it. When things get tough, it’s effective to mentally “change the channel” to distract yourself. When you feel like quitting even a small project like a home improvement, notice who’s watching. Try again.

Grittiness in children can be taught as well as coached. Talk to children about the impact of their thoughts and beliefs, how positive ones help them succeed. When teaching, talk about the ideas that growing and learning are not supposed to be easy, and that discomfort (or boredom) is a natural part of the process for everyone. Dispel the myth that some people are born “gifted” – this terminology contributes to a “fixed mindset.” In contrast, a “growth mindset,” so named by Stanford professor Carol Dweck, allows that struggle is part of the endeavor. Create a home where courage, curiosity and risk-taking are valued. Allow your children chances to triumph over something difficult. When there’s a bad day at soccer practice or dulcimer club, help them through it but make sure they keep showing up until the end of the season. Communicate to your children that pushing through discomfort is part of learning; it doesn’t mean they’re bad or stupid. Cultivate positive emotions by dwelling on and savoring a positive event – like learning to ride a bike or speaking up when feeling shy.

Older children might interview someone who has worked toward a long-term goal. You should also talk about goals your child has worked toward in the past and how satisfying that is. Help them set short-term goals; they will get a surge of energy that will propel them into bigger ventures. Be aware of possible ideas; listen when they say “I wish I could. …” Help them identify this as a goal and come up with action steps. Assist as children research their goal and gather the materials they’ll need. It can be helpful to ask the three Ws: Who can help?, What do I need to do? and When do I need to do it?

When failure and frustration occur, as they inevitably will, first help your child regain calm. Recognize and label anger, sadness or embarrassment. Help them breathe deeply and allow big emotions to come out. When your child feels calmer, look at the attempt together. Was the goal too vague or ambitious? Ask for your child’s take on how they might improve. They will be more likely to carry out suggestions they come up with themselves. Help them envision the benefits of following through – the independence of being able to ride a bike, for instance – and keep praising their efforts.  

Contact Ann Farrar at afarrar@illinoistimes.com.

Further reading on grit:

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough

Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion and Pluck Take You from Ordinary to Extraordinary, by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth (available in May 2016).

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