by Meghan Fitzgerald
We have imagined “schooling” for our kids in several formats, from our town’s public schools all the way to unschooling. Yet, we’ve never wavered on our desire to make sure our kids are ready to learn and thrive in the face of whatever comes their way.
That’s why we’ve become so interested in making sure they can persist in pursuit of learning and of goals they set for themselves. Another name for this is grit. Psychologist, Angela Duckworth, defines grit as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals.” Duckworth studied how a wide range of people fared in challenging situations, from cadets entering West Point to teachers starting out in struggling communities. Across all, grit was the one characteristic that emerged as a significant predictor of their success. Not to mention, high school GPA, something that requires sustained effort, is also more predictive of success in college than either standardized tests or measures of IQ.
Whether you’re in, curious or a bit skeptical, you can get a sense of grit by listening to Duckworth speak about her research. You’ll likely come to see that grit is more than just “stick-to-it-iveness,” although that is part of it. It’s about passion, genuine interests, and motivation that comes from within. Grit also involves learning, seeing setbacks as opportunities, and responding to whatever challenges you face in pursuit of something you love. It’s what people need to reach for their dreams.
The people studied in grit research were older than our children. But, kids start building a foundation for this characteristic at birth. Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers have no shame and very little fear of failure. Without persistence and true tolerance for setbacks, they would never walk, talk, climb, run, or even learn to nurture close relationships. Small humans are designed to try, fail, revise, repeat—all in order to learn. It’s often an adult's reaction to their setbacks that leads a child to associate failure with loss or lasting disappointment. So, the early years are a perfect time to hold back our reactions, let them push themselves, and promote grit in our kids.
How can we promote grit? Here are a handful of promising practices:
Ask yourself, how gritty am I? Test yourself on Angela Duckworth’s grit scale. Taking time to think about the role that grit has played in your life can also help you support early grit development in your kids.
Let kids drive their own play: If kids can have lots of space and time to take play in any direction, they’ll be much more likely to identify and hone their interests—and interests are seeds that sprout true passions.
Let creatures be teachers: In our Tinkergarten classes, kids learn all kinds of lessons by observing and pretending to be other living things. The natural world is full of examples of species who have evolved unique ways to persist and, in turn, thrive. For example, in this Winter season of Tinkergarten classes, we’ll learn about grit from studying the survival superpowers of 8 different animals.
Pretend with kids: What does pretending have to do with grit? When kids pretend, they develop cognitive flexibility—the ability to bend the rules, imagine new worlds and substitute one idea for another. Part of working your way around obstacles in life is thinking and acting flexibly. So, pretending can actually help kids prepare . Want to know more? Read 6 ways to develop cognitive flexibility.
Reframe problems as “desirable difficulties:” It’s hard to watch our children suffer, but it’s helpful to ask ourselves, “When is frustration really suffering, and when is it a means to learn?” When you ask that question, you can start to spot “desirable difficulties”—a concept developed by Robert and Elizabeth Bjork at UCLA and made popular in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath. According to the Bjorks' research, when a task is made easier, it does not result in more learning. Rather, when learners experience an appropriate level of challenge, they “turn on.” The challenge becomes a way to get better at the task at hand and to learn to be both flexible and, you guessed it, gritty.
Trust kids to tell you what’s too challenging: Young children are rather good at knowing when too much is too much. And, a little frustration is good practice for life. So, let them give challenge a good try. For example, if your child decides to try to drag a log four times her size, let her go for it. Through persisting a bit, she’ll learn a thing or two about physics as well as her own limits. If you encourage her not to try, she’ll only learn that you don’t believe she can do it. If she gets stuck or appears sad when thwarted, you can always suggest she try again when she is taller or stronger, or you can offer to team up and see what happens together.
Be mindful of the limitations of grit and how grit is impacted by privilege. The concept that, "if we work hard, we will have success" is a narrative that does not apply equally to all kids. All kids need to develop both genuine interests and the ability to persevere in the face of obstacles in pursuit of their goals, but we have to be careful not to assume that grit alone levels an uneven playing field.
Notice and honor effort—Think about how you praise, and look for every opportunity to value effort over achievement (and definitely avoid praising talent or “smarts”). When you see a child put real effort into something, especially if they struggle and persist, describe the child’s actions to them and stress the learning. For example, “I saw that your stone tower kept falling over, but you switched the blocks and kept going. What did you learn about building towers from all of those falls?”
Practice grit and let your kids peek in: One of the most powerful ways to nurture grit in our children is to model it ourselves. Identify a passion or genuine interest of your own and share it with your children. This can be any level pursuit that you happen to really love and at which you can always get better. Maybe it’s baking bread, tending to plants, playing an instrument or running. Share with your kids how you love your passion task as well as ways you find it challenging. Teach grit every time you hit a challenge by talking about it with kids in terms of what you’ve learned and what you think you’ll try instead next time.
Parenting may just be the best lesson in grit!
If you feel like passions took a back seat since you had kids, you are not alone! Maybe grit is a great reason for us to dust off an old passion and start showing our kids how great getting ever better at something we love can be.
Or, maybe, for now, we shouldn’t forget to see parenting as a passion—something that we love unlike any other pursuit, to which we are utterly committed and at which we can always get better. Setbacks aside, we can stay curious, keep learning and persist!