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Today’s mounting research on grit suggests that your child’s ability to work hard, endure struggle, fail, and try again may be the key to determining his or her long-term success and happiness.
When we are in pursuit of a lofty goal, we don’t know when or even whether we will succeed. Until we do.
Grit is a distinct combination of passion, resilience, determination, and focus that allows a person to maintain the discipline and optimism to persevere in their goals even in the face of discomfort, rejection, and a lack of visible progress for years, or even decades
Through extensive research, Angela Duckworth and her team have proven that the common denominator among spelling bee finalists, successful West Point cadets, salespeople and teachers who not only stick with, but improve in their performance is grit.
Study after study show that people who are smart, talented, kind, curious, and come from stable, loving homes, generally don’t succeed if they don’t know how to work hard, remain committed to their goals, and persevere through struggles and failure.
Can We Foster Grit in Children and How?
As parents, it is up to us to cultivate the confidence and optimism in our children that will allow them to power through low moments. What can we do to provide that support? How do we teach our kids to push themselves? What can we do to help our kids be receptive to these tough lessons? Here are few ideas gleaned from the “grit” experts.
#1 Find a Passion (or At Least an Engaging Activity)
As children grow older, pursuing a particular interest of their own choosing can help them to identify a passion and understand that practice, hard work and perseverance are surest way to achievement.
In a story for NPR, Duckworth told Tovia Smith, “I don’t think people can become truly gritty and great at things they don’t love, so when we try to develop grit in kids, we also need to find and help them cultivate their passions.”
But even if our kids haven’t found their life’s work yet, we can help them learn the habits and traits that comprise grit.
At the Duckworth house, they have implemented a “Hard Thing Rule,” which says that every member of the family has to be working on something difficult at any given time. Each person can choose his or her “thing” but it should be both interesting and require “deliberate practice almost daily.” Everyone has to stick with his or her selected activity for a set period of time. No one is allowed to quit mid-season because things seem too hard.
The idea is to teach kids to commit to something and work hard. The learning process is not always fun, and improvement does not come without effort. But if a child is motivated to improve at something because she likes it, then the struggle will seem worthwhile and success will be its own reward.
Be it ballet, soccer, violin, or karate, allowing a child to choose an activity and work at it for a whole season (or longer for older children) helps cultivate a passion, teaches self-discipline and reinforces the idea that practice begets skill.
#2 Recognize That Frustration, Confusion and Practice Are Par for the Course
According to the Duckworth lab, those who believe that diligence and perseverance pay off beat out their less optimistic, and often more talented, counterparts nearly every time.
In a 2013 TED Talk, Duckworth said the “best idea” she has heard about how to increase grit in children is to teach what Stanford professor and author of the highly acclaimed book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success , Carol Dweck, calls a “growth mindset.”
Dweck has found that people with “growth mindsets” are more resilient and tend to push through struggle because they believe that hard work is part of the process and they understand that failure is not a permanent condition. Those with “fixed mindsets” on the other hand, believe that success stems from innate talent and tend to give up easily ¬– why work hard at something if you don’t believe you can change anything?
The Duckworth lab’s recent research, undertaken in partnership with classroom teachers, shows that students become less frustrated with the learning process and put forth more effort when they understand that even experts struggle to learn their craft.
First-hand accounts of the obstacles that experts have to overcome to “make it” have a real impact on helping kids manage frustration. Duckworth is fond of quoting world-class dancer Martha Graham who said, “Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to the paradise of achievement is not easier than any other. There is fatigue so great that the body cries, even in its sleep. There are times of complete frustration, there are daily small deaths.”
Last summer while at the City Farmer’s Market, my children and I stopped to watch a talented tap dancer performing a street show. My daughter Sue* was mesmerized. “I want to dance like that,” she said. “I want to take tap.”
When the dancer took a break, we asked him how long he had been dancing.
“14 years,” he said.
“And how much do you practice?” I asked.
“Three hours a day,” he said.
Later, Sue and I got out the calculator. That’s 15,330 hours of practice!
It’s not that we should never let our children change interests or shift activities as they grow—they are kids after all—but understanding the value of practice, hard work and even struggle may be the thing that carries them across the finish line.
Ongoing Action Plan
Implement a “Hard Thing Rule.” Help your child identify a challenging long-term goal to work toward and encourage regular practice.
Talk about setbacks as they arise. Help your child build a plan B or C when necessary.