Grit: the key ingredient to your children's success

Talent means little without hard work

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

When parents and educators launched the "self-esteem" movement in the 1980s, lavishly praising children and handing out trophies to all, they expected everyone would try harder. But the opposite was true. Coddled children became softer, slower and less likely to persevere. In other words, they didn't learn grit.

"This is not a gritty generation," says Caroline Adams Miller, an author and speaker. "They become overwhelmed easily because they've been protected from failure."

Psychologists are now focusing on grit as a key ingredient for happiness and success.

Grit is defined as passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals. "More than anything, it predicts who gets to the finish line of hard goals in life," Miller says, adding that being talented is of little value unless you pair it with hard work and passion.

Research shows grit is usually unrelated or inversely related to talent. But if you fear your children are light on grit, don't worry. We can cultivate traits of gritty people - and model them for our children. Grit is contagious.

Cultivating grit requires finding a passion - something that lights you up. Miller proposes some steps for getting grit:

  • When you face a tough challenge, don't tell yourself the job is too hard. Ask yourself, why not me?
  • When things get hard and you want to quit, mentally change the channel. Focus on a spiritual phrase, mantra or image to spur you on.
  • Build a team around you. Connect positively with people every day to help you reach tough long-term goals.
  • Parents also should praise effort over outcome and coax their children to push through pain and failure, which will help develop self-respect.

While it's tough to let your children fail, failure is key in building grit and grit is often the key to success - you have to fall down to get back up.

That hasn't always been the case. Creeping grade inflation in high schools and teachers allowing students to retake bombed tests also eroded the ability of children to develop grit.

But participation in competitive sports and developing the discipline required to excel in the arts makes children grittier.

Miller urges parents to step outside their comfort zone. She says playing it safe doesn't net much except anxiety and an inability to take risks. Encourage your children to stick around people who aren't quitters. "Take more risks that expose you to novelty and keep you curious," Miller says.

In a recent TED Talk on grit, Angela Lee Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, says the most significant predictor of success in children isn't social intelligence, good looks, physical health or IQ. "It's about having stamina, sticking with your future - day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years - and working really hard to make that future a reality."

It's about being the tortoise, instead of the hare that sprints ahead but stops midway to take a nap, thereby losing the race. Grit is "living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint", Duckworth says.

Duckworth says the best way to build grit is "growth mindset", an idea developed by Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist. Growth mindset is the belief that the ability to learn can change with effort. When children understand the brain grows in response to challenge, they're more likely to persevere when they fail. They cultivate grit when they know the qualities they need for success can be developed through dedication and effort.

To develop a gritty teen, we need to praise children not for being smart or showing up, but for their hard effort. We need to infuse optimism and humour into their lives. We need to train them to hang in. We need to show them how to plug along towards long-term goals even when they trip and fall.

"Kids with grit are finishers in life," Miller says. "At the first sign of discomfort they don't run away and quit, they continue to show up and have the satisfaction of knowing that they gave their best whether there's a trophy waiting for them or not."

The Washington Post

Judy Holland is editor-in-chief of an e-magazine for parents of teens