Updated: Jul 14
May, 2019: They say that one of the most important attributes a person can have to be successful in life is grit. Not being born with a silver spoon. Not graduating from high school at age 12. Not having the highest IQ, extraordinary talent, oodles of ingenuity, vast popularity, athletic prowess, or anything else like that. No, the most important thing to be successful in life is simple, can’t be given, could be learned, and certainly can never be taken away, is grit. Grit is defined as courage or resolve, strength of character. Another definition? Firmness of mind or spirit; unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger. While easy to define, how is grit developed?
While a certain amount of tendency to be yielding or unyielding in the face of adversity like the ridicule of peers may be hardwired into a person’s personality, grit can be largely learned by experience in traversing barriers in life, by facing the fire and overcoming obstacles small, and later large, that really expand a person’s determination and hope in their ability to stick with it, no matter what. It certainly helps to have the passion to pursue a goal no matter the consequences from your natural born disposition, and the ability to pass up short term gratification to achieve a long term success.
Individuals who exhibit a high level of grit are great at denying their own needs and have a large amount of self-control to continually choose their long term goal over an easy exit when the going gets tough. This ability is what makes those with grit able to become high achievers in life, no matter their actual academic prowess. A well-known psychologist who studies grit, Angela Duckworth, found that students who worked hard to overcome a lack of knowledge or understanding of a topic in school fared far better in their grades at the end of the year than students who had a naturally high level of academic ability in the same subject matter. The students who knew of their weaknesses worked far harder to get additional help, spent extra study time, and cared more about improving themselves compared to their talented peers. While it is easy to detect smart students via aptitude tests, it is far harder to estimate their future success, because the soft skills of which includes communication, patience, inter-personal skills, emotional self-control, and self-preservation are much harder to measure.
Case in point, my little five-year old Addy. Of my 3 children, her strongest personality trait by far other than simply pure sweetness, is her tendency towards people-pleasing. She is the “easy” child, because she places pleasing others, especially those in authority, far above most other values she holds dear. Which is in stark contrast to my son Aiden. He is very firm minded, naturally contrary, impossible to convince of anything that he does not already believe, sometimes framed as the “difficult” or “strong-willed” child, making him far more likely to naturally exhibit grit. It’s an interesting contrast of personalities. But which of the two are more likely to succeed in life?
While grit can be a component of the personalities with which we are born, it is also shaped and is learned through life experiences. And of course there are different components that make up the trait we know as grit. For Addy, her constant desire to please others give her a natural internal motivation to do well, to continuously improve, to receive the praise of those around her, such as her teachers and parents. This internal motivation encourages her to become naturally courageous when facing adversity, because this behavior is considered desirable and rewarded when faced with difficulties such as, let’s say, appendicitis, as a 5-year old. While encountering such an acute, severe medical illness with a sudden, invasive treatment, no doubt Addy learned the additional skills of bravery, perseverance, and patience and continues to learn and grow as she recovers from her difficult and painful experience.
For Aiden, his natural sense of being right whether he is or not, must be tempered by good communication and inter-personal skills, or he will never have the team building and motivational skills required to encourage those around him to also get in line and pursue a common goal. These soft skills are necessary for his strong ability to persevere to overcome the negative elements that would make him less successful in achieving his long term goals. But during his journey, Aiden will find it extremely easy to wear blinders when confronted with peer pressure to dissuade him from the path of attaining his goals, exhibiting the positive attributes that actually become an advantage later on in life for strong-willed children. He, too, exhibits a strong internal motivation to prove that he is right in continuing along the road on which he has chosen to travel, leading to a large potential for success in life.
So how can you encourage grit in a child that appears to have little in their natural demeanor leading in that direction? Or what if you do notice the raw ingredients of grit in your child? How do you help your child maintain and grow in the direction of perseverance no matter the obstacles that will no doubt appear in life?
1. Avoid becoming a helicopter parent. While the natural instinct of parents is to soften the blow of the spills of life, children learn valuable lessons from these experiences that are critical to learning. Doctors of Physical Therapy study motor learning intently, so we can very quickly teach a client how to improve their motor skills. For children and adults who are learning or re-learning a new motor skill, if you do not receive feedback for ineffective or even dangerous actions, you will never learn how to or how not to perform a specific skill. I vividly recall utilizing this knowledge when playing with my kids on playground equipment. My youngest Addy was always a go-getter, frequently trying playground apparatuses above her skill level to keep up with her older siblings. I would allow her to make a bad choice, and watch her climb up the apparatus with my mommy angel on one shoulder telling me to rescue her immediately, and my PT devil on my other shoulder advising me to let her make the mistake. When she got to the tricky part and blazed ahead instead of bailing out, I let her feel herself free fall before catching her, so she would know she made a critical movement mistake. The result? She learned to avoid that apparatus for several months before trying it again, or she would call in an adult to be close by her side to help her stay safe, having learned it was over her head and ability level (or leg length) at that time.
2. Allow your child to feel the full force of the natural consequences of their actions. I will never forget my cousin’s wedding reception, during which my son pulled the fire alarm. While my son had done this before as a toddler at O’Hare airport, he was not old enough to have learned from and remember this previous mistake. But at the wedding, my now five-year old son gave me a knowing look of horror, indicating that he indeed was old enough to realize his mistake, and the panic in his face was obvious. However, had I rescued him and given him the easy way out as the embarrassed mother, I would have done him a large dis-service. While he may have felt bad in the moment, was it enough of a deterrent to prevent him from touching that enticing, bright red fire alarm at the next large gathering? To make sure, he not only received a punishment from mom and dad, but also had to apologize in person to the bride. Based on his red face and stammering voice, I’m pretty certain that this apology and the payment of any fees from the fire department responding to the fire being reimbursed from his earnings pulling weeds in the garden that summer were adequate consequences to ensure that learning had occurred from this unfortunate event so it would never be repeated. Four years later, so far, so good!
3. Encourage your child to aspire to lofty goals. While it’s okay to insert some realism into a goal, or to break a very large goal into smaller, more attainable step goals to build toward the full goal, this is your child’s opportunity to build grit- so get out of the way! When my 6 year old McKenzie decided to earn her own American Girl Doll (cost: $135!) from her meager paycheck from helping to clean the clinic (she was a child prodigy in scrubbing floors!), I reminded her that she could ask for gift cards for her birthday or Christmas to attain the goal faster. She refused. “No, mom, I need to earn the whole thing myself without any help,” she said. Nine months later, I had a beaming 6 year old who couldn’t be more proud of her money saving efforts that allowed her to fully pay for her first American Girl doll all by herself. This was the first of many lofty goals my daughter has made for herself, and continues to make for herself. I regularly see the confidence that this very early practice in patience, self-control, and perseverance gave her to excel as she puts in the hard work required to attain lofty goals in other areas of life.
4. Do not give your child an easy out. When the going gets tough is the perfect grit-building situation to keep on going! Feel free to offer words of wisdom and advice, or even my favorite, “Suck it up, Buttercup!” as you encourage your child while reinforcing follow through in every commitment. Started swimming lessons? No giving up until your child can swim safely and independently. Tired of practicing piano? Set a date by which if your child still feels uninspired to play piano, they will have completed their commitment. Soccer is not their thing? Finishing the season will teach your child life lessons that will extend far beyond any soccer field. The bonus learning here is also how to avoid making rash decision that you might later regret.
5. Encourage your child to be bold in making mistakes. While I certainly did not encourage it as I did not know it was coming, I can’t forget the day my 2 year old decided to walk into my office where I was working on planning her very own birthday party on my computer, and proceeded to take a bite out of my forearm! I took a quick estimate of the situation before responding. Hmmm… she had never done this behavior before. She certainly seemed old enough to know better. Why did she suddenly bite me out of the blue? Then it hit me- she was looking for the response. What would I do? So I stood up and laid into her like I never had before. Her momma went ballistic! While waving my pointer finger in my face, I made it clear that this behavior was never acceptable under any circumstances, and to try it again would result in consequences so terrible she would not dare try it ever again. She was trying something new, weighing the response, and learning from it. The mistake was never repeated.
6. Reinforce the importance of emotional control. This too is a critically important ingredient in grit. It is also a huge struggle for most children, hence the “terrible twos and threes,” and tantrums of 4 and 5 year olds. While some kids outgrow it, it certainly comes back from time to time at various ages and circumstances. When it occurs and hurts other people (like a teammate on my daughter’s basketball team) or things (my son’s bedroom wall bears the scars), do we rush to make everything right for little Joey or Jane, or do we allow the full consequences of their actions stare them in the face every time they turn out their light? It is amazing to hear my son admit, “Yea, I did that, and it’s pretty embarrassing. I wish it wasn’t there.” This summer I will talk to him about fixing it, with the cost of the repairs coming out of his hard-earned piggy bank fund. Recognize that for kids who really struggle with this, it will not be a one-time learning experience. But encourage recognition of “what went wrong,” and alternative ways their emotion could have been harnessed in a harmless way. If it was something hurtful said to a friend, have them think about what needs to be said to make it right. Take the time to address the possible root of this behavior as well, such as loss of control or underlying anger, or even being bullied themselves. Encourage your child to talk to you about these strong emotions before they boil out of control to build self-awareness and to increase your child’s ability to acknowledge and address strong emotions before acting on them.
7. Make your child snowflake-proof. How do you avoid your children becoming snowflakes? Do not reward every attempt they make. Reward successful completion of household tasks versus half-hearted attempts. Simply showing up is not good enough, and does not deserve a reward. Encourage him or her to put themselves out there and try something new, something that isn’t their natural strength, so they can feel the dufficulty of the struggle to learn a new game or develop a new talent. This will give them an opportunity to see the benefits of working hard to attain a new skill. Sign them up for the local school team even though they will no doubt lose every single soccer game, versus moving to that school district with the soccer team that wins state every year. This will teach your child not only how to graciously lose, but also how to feel the internal benefits of knowing they never gave up and kept working hard in the face of adversity, even if tangible rewards were never achieved. Have them face their fear of speaking in public by enrolling them in a speaking class or signing up for a speaking contest. Have a fear of singing in public? Find them an opportunity to do just that. By facing their natural fears in life, whether the outcome is positive or negative, builds their self-efficacy and self-esteem while learning the ability to act despite their fear. Your child doesn’t have any interests or skills? Sign them up for 4-H or Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts to give them the opportunity to learn new skills. Through active trial and error they will find what they are interested in and enjoy whether or not that are naturally good at it, which will reduce fear and anxiety and build their confidence to tackle more and more difficult challenges later in life.
8. Fuel a growth mindset. This is a skill that is best role modeled by each parent, and then discussed frequently as your child grows up. Point out that your husband is going to school to further his knowledge in his career, and because he enjoys learning about such and such. Give your child examples of classes that you attend to grow in your profession, or to learn how to be a better husband or wife, or how to be a better parent. When you take the shame and scariness out of admitting that you do not know it all, and even you as a parent and adult have many things yet to learn, you are showing your child that it is safe, helpful, and accepted to continue to grow in all aspects of life, and that it is okay to not know everything. This will take the fear out of new challenges and encourage your child to take a positive approach towards learning and growing. Instill an attitude of continuously seeking improvement throughout your child’s life span. Make simply maintaining the status quo an unacceptable approach to life in your household!
9. Demonstrate patience and perseverance to your children. Most people already know my struggles with a heart arrhythmia brought on during my last pregnancy. While I could have simply quit my job, gone on disability, closed my clinic and abandoned my career forever, I knew that I could not demonstrate this type of behavior to my kids. (Well, that, and I happen to love what I do!) I wanted my children to know that no matter the possible consequences, their mom did not simply passively accept the hand that was dealt to me when alternatives, though difficult to access, were available to address them. And even though, 2 years later, I am continuing to experience negative consequences related to that original decision, I don’t regret it at all. My kids are not just learning about perseverance by me telling them about it. They are able to see perseverance in action, day by day. How to not let the negative circumstances we may find ourselves in overwhelm our ability to remain joyful and continue to see the light at the end of the tunnel. How to overcome adversities and limitations in pursuit of a lifelong goal, just as I watched my own father do precisely the same when he was injured in a farm accident during my junior year of high school. How to rely on a strength and power much greater than your own when the odds seem insurmountable. How to find a way where others see none. Not allowing a limitation to become an excuse to quit becomes an unmistakable example of perseverance no matter how large the obstacle. The attributes you model will be far more influential to your kids at any age than any words you say.