What Grit is and How to Develop it
The quality of grit is portrayed well in the Japanese proverb:
"Fall down seven times, stand up eight."
In her best-selling book Grit: Why passion and perseverance are the secrets to success, Angela Duckworth describes the outcome of her extensive research on a wide range of participants from West Point cadets to competitors in a national Spelling Bee. Her analysis shows how “hanging in there” with challenges and cultivating a never-give-up attitude is far more likely to yield success than innate talent or luck. Talent and luck might put you on the road to stardom, but only focus, practice, perseverance and the ability to pick yourself up after failure will get you there. In her words, “our potential is one thing, what we do with it is quite another.”
Coupled with the idea of perseverance is the notion of passion. Our goals must be meaningful to us if they are to inspire the level of immersion and effort required to reach them. To find one’s passion, however, may take a great deal of experimentation and figuring out. It is a process of playful discovering followed by developing and deepening. The example of Andrea Bocelli speaks to this idea. Despite his blindness, Bocelli started his career intending to be a lawyer which was an arduous undertaking. At the same time, he continued singing at piano bars. Eventually his passion for music outweighed his desire to study law, despite his perseverance at both, and he ultimately found success as a singer.
How can we take these findings and make them applicable to parenting and teaching our children?
Laura Markham of Psychology Today suggests coaching rather than controlling our kids. This is the difference between doing things WITH our children which builds confidence and doing things FOR them which takes away their opportunity to grow. Keeping tasks manageable, if slightly challenging, is key, so that children taste success often enough to develop the belief that they are capable and competent. Allowing children to feel and express frustration or fear helps them to move through and beyond those feelings, and encouragement goes a long way in helping them sustain momentum. Perhaps her most helpful tip is to describe our kids’ efforts back to them rather than evaluating them. For example, saying “you kept trying and you finished” rather than, “you’re so talented.”
There are many opportunities around us to teach children about grit. It is evident everywhere in nature, from a baby bird chipping its way out of an egg to a flower pushing up through concrete. There will also be people with whom your children and students interact regularly who have their own grit stories to share. It can be useful to identify and talk about the hardest part of challenges so that children can think about how they will deal with those specific parts ahead of time. The psychological tool of re-framing is valuable here. Re-framing is not denying reality, but it is a way of viewing events, ideas or feelings to find more positive alternatives. As authors of The Danish Way of Parenting, Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandahl put it, “looking at life in a softer, more positive, less limiting way.”
The issue does not change but the way the child sees it can shift. For example, if your daughter says she hates school, you can help her to talk about aspects of school that she does like. If your son is criticised for being distracted, you can acknowledge this, but at the same time point out that he is creative and imaginative.
Essentially developing grit means believing that our own efforts contribute to the quality of our future. According to Duckworth, for this to grow, children need wise parents and teachers who expect the best from them and at the same time offer consistent, warm support and respect.
Alexander, J. (2016). How Reframing results in happy parents (and kids).
Cullins, A. (2019). 9 Activities to Build Grit and Resilience in Children.
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: Why passion and perseverance are the secrets to success.
New York: Scribner.
Jachimowicz, J., Wihler, A., Bailey, E., & Galinsky, A. (2018). Why grit requires perseverance and passion to positively predict performance.
Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, 115(40), 9980-9985. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1803561115.
Markham, L. (2015). 12 Ways to Raise a Competent, Confident Child with Grit.