We all want our kids to grow up and be healthy, thriving, independent young adults. One of the primary indicators of whether our kids will thrive after leaving home is something called grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals.
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What is Grit Exactly?
So, what is grit anyway? I think it’s something that we’ve heard a lot about maybe the last 10 or 15 years or so. Ivy League professor and best-selling author, Angela Duckworth, defined grit “as the combination of perseverance and passion toward long-term goals.” Grit is when you’re able to harness the power of passion and turn it into resolve, persistence, stamina, and tenacity, working toward goals that endure over time. In short, grit is: consistent. hard. work.
Examples of grit are someone:
- developing a hobby or interest
- learning to play a musical instrument like the piano
- learning to dance or play a sport.
- working toward graduating high school or college.
Grit shouldn’t be mistaken as short bursts of intense energy. It isn’t grit if a student was able to finish a school project over the weekend. They may have worked for hours and hours, the project was amazing, and they earned a great grade. That’s great work, but different than grit. Grit strives to delay gratification until your child’s goals are achieved. It is a mindset, a focus on consistent effort over long periods of time perfecting your craft. Grit is a willingness to embrace the daily grind in order to achieve long-term goals.
Grit is a little different than IQ which tends to be a little bit more fixed. Grit is something that actually can be developed, harnessed, taught, and most certainly improved throughout the course of someone’s life.
Benefits of Developing Grit
There are two benefits that come to mind when I think about developing grit. The first thing that stands out for me, is that grit prepares and conditions us for long-term success. That can be carried over into graduating college, career development, family relationships.
A second natural benefit is that grit absolutely can overcome talent deficiencies. However, it is on rare occasions that I’ve seen that talent can overcome grit deficiencies. Here are a couple of examples of how grit may apply. Let’s say someone struggles with some academic learning, you may have a child that really struggles in that way. so what grit can teach is the ability to figure out things like taking notes is really hard, how do I figure out how to study 50 pages for an exam? How do I take out the themes or highlight the points? And then I can continue to improve and get better at those particular tasks and develop a growth mindset that will take me through high school or college graduation and prepare me for a career.
What if you have a child who struggles with some social or emotional learning? Or somebody who might be really bright but struggles socially with school? Maybe they’re very anxious, struggle with performance anxiety, or social anxiety really hinders school. How can grit help them?
I think that for most of us, when something is uncomfortable, or when we are not good at something, we I would shy away from them. Grit helps to bring about an opportunity to practice over a consistent period of time dealing with the very things that might be difficult. Again, contrary to the notion that we should shy away from things we’re not good at, grit would have us develop the skill necessary to become competent in those areas.
What if your child has a lot of talent and gets good grades? You may still be a little concerned about how much grit they have. What if they haven’t been challenged enough academically, socially or emotionally? And what happens when they get to college and school isn’t easy anymore? I think that’s the fear for all of us.
Grit becomes really critical to help insulate our kids in these challenging situations.
How to Develop Grit
Far too soon, our kids will be out in the world, deciding what activities to spend their time all on their own. If our children are able to master this self-directed focus while living at home, in an environment that is safe for them to fail and learn, then they will thrive when they go out on their own. Something we need to remember that as parents we can’t actually control our children. We can’t make someone develop grit. We can persuade and influence and we can punish and reward. But in the end, if our kids don’t want to do something, we can’t physically make them do it.
For example, if you have a piano player in the house who does not enjoy practicing. You as a parent may decide, “I am going to help them develop grit because I will make them go to the piano practice.” Probably the only person in that scenario that may be developing grit would be you, the parent. You are the one who has to deal with the arguments, the frustrations, even the tantrums about practicing the piano.
However, there are several things you can do to create an environment that fosters grit development.
1. Start with Passion
If you are just starting to help your child develop grit, try focusing on an area they are passionate about. If you want them to strengthen their intrinsic motivation, it helps to start with something they already want to do. If they love music, get them playing an instrument. Or if they love sports, sign them up for a team. But guide them toward something that will take consistent & prolonged effort.
The goal is not to make them hate life, it is to help them understand that it is okay to sacrifice comfort to get something they passionately want.
2. Use Commitments & Contracts
For most of us, the first time an activity is hard or difficult, or we make a mistake, or we feel embarrassed, the tendency is to think, “You know what, I don’t want to do this anymore.” It is in these moments when your son or daughter may say, “Hey, I went. I hated it and I’m never going back again.” They’ll want to quit an activity, not because they stopped wanting the outcome, but because the effort is hard.
Rather than allowing them to quit in midstream, try anticipating this situation talking about ahead of time. Make an agreement with your child before signing up for a particular sports team, hobby, or interest. Let them know that there are two price tags for these types of activities: a financial price tag and a time/effort price tag. Let them know that you may be willing to pay the financial cost, but only if they are willing to pay the cost of time and effort. Then talk about how it needs to be a sustained effort for whatever time period you are comfortable with. Maybe it’s three or four weeks, or maybe it’s three months depending on the activity. Just help them commit to an honest effort and attempt.
Again, the goal is not to make them suffer, but to help them be okay with discomfort while striving for something they want.
3. Help Them Understand Delayed Gratification
You could say that grit is just our ability to delay gratification, to sacrifice immediate gratification so that we can achieve long term goals. When your son or daughter wants to quit something because it is hard, first help them remember why it is they started in the first place. Try to help them visualize what it will be like to win the championship, walk across the stage to get the diploma while their name is being called over the speakers and everyone is standing up cheering for them or to play that difficult musical arrangement at the next recital. This is why it is so important to start with setting a clear goal, something your child wants to accomplish. It gives them something to hold in their imagination and look forward to when times get tough.
Second, help your son or daughter recognize and be mindful of the immediate rewards they are already receiving. Can they recognize the value of the friendships they are making by being a part of a team? Or can they find joy in the fact they did better this week than last week? Most experiences are not all good or all bad. When we validate our kid’s struggles while helping them find the good, it makes it much easier for them to persevere.
4. Develop Self-efficacy
It is difficult to keep working toward a goal if you don’t believe you can actually accomplish it. Self-efficacy is the belief that one can accomplish difficult things. Higher levels of self-efficacy are linked to greater motivation and positive thinking skills.
Your son or daughter can develop self-efficacy just by trying to do things they previously thought were impossible. We see this all the time with the students at our program. These adolescents and young adults believe that “If I completed all of these difficult tasks during wilderness therapy, I can do other difficult things!” Our students do things they never thought possible before coming to an adventure therapy program. They master many activities that initially terrify them, including rappelling, rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding, and mountain biking. With each activity, their belief in themselves grows. They not only believe they can do hard things, they know it.
Upon returning home, this confidence in their ability to do hard things helps fuel their commitment to school, family relationships, and other goals. Self-efficacy is key to developing grit.
5. Embrace a Growth Mindset
Similar to self-efficacy, a growth mindset is a belief that one’s talents & abilities aren’t fixed. This means that knowledge, skills, talents, and abilities can all be grown and improved depending on how much effort we put into developing them. For example, someone with a fixed mindset may say, “I’m not good at math.” But someone with a growth mindset would say, “I’m not good at math yet.” Here are two ways to develop a growth mindset and build grit:
Value Effort over Talent
Students today, particularly in our society, are highly praised for their achievement, test scores or talent. Instead, we may want to focus more on praising their effort. As parents we must ask ourselves, can we value hard work, can we value effort more than talent?
I think we tend to get sort of enamored with talent and how amazing our kids are. If they start to see success, instead of focusing on how their achievement or talent, try honoring, praising, and rewarding their perseverance. You may say, “Wow, you have practiced that a lot! No wonder the recital went so well” instead of commenting about how smart or talented they are. Continue to focus on the effort and tenacity that it took to achieve the goal.
Change How We See Failure & Stop Rescuing
This is kind of a paradigm shift for a lot of us, but to help our children learn a growth mindset we might need to let them fail. An effective way to treat anxiety is called exposure therapy. This therapy slowly exposes people to their fears in incrementally increased doses until a thing no longer holds any power over them. When we let our kids fail, it is kind of like providing a form of exposure therapy. We’re able to reframe failure from something to be feared and turn it into something that is necessary to learn and grow.
Let failure be an event, not a person. By allowing the process of failure to be a catalyst for teaching, our kids develop even more stamina and resolve. Many of us have heard of the example of Edison and the light bulb. And it wasn’t about that he failed 1000 times, but that he found 999 ways not to make a light build. By positively exposing your son or daughter to failure at an early age, you prepare them to handle the difficult situations they will face when they go out on their own.
And as a parent myself, I get it. This process is painful for us as parents. We want to rescue our kids from the pain of failure. However, I don’t know that there is a better teacher than pain or failure or shortcomings. What we must not do is lift them up and carry them beyond those limitations and those failures. We must not be helicopter parents or lawnmower parents, but rather failure to be the great learning experiences that can teach grit and long-term success. And success is growing/going from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm
6. Validate Painful Emotions While Showing Encouragement
Despite the fact we want our children to be comfortable being uncomfortable, we don’t want to negate what they are feeling. Trying new things is hard. Failure is painful. And having grit doesn’t mean you don’t feel pain. It’s okay to feel hurt or frustrated. We all have those feelings. The difference is that people with grit push through the discomfort and pain until they achieve their goals.
If your son or daughter is struggling to push through the struggle, first try to validate what your child is feeling. Share with them your experiences trying new things. Let them know that you understand how they feel. But, your goal is not to rescue them from the hard feeling but to strengthen their ability to handle difficult emotions.
Secondly, tell your son or daughter that you are confident they will be able to succeed. It can be helpful to share specifics as to why you are confident. For example, you may say, “I know how difficult this is for you. Learning new things can be hard and scary, even for me. I remember how you practiced so hard for your last recital and it turned out wonderfully. I know if you keep practicing, you can master this piece too. I believe in you.”
And here is the hard part, our actions also need to show we are confident in their abilities. We can’t tell them they are capable and then rescue them by helping them escape the discomfort or doing the task for them.
Your child’s grit, or their ability to focus their perseverance and passion for long-term goals, might be a better predictor of future success and academic achievement than their intelligence. And while you can’t force your child to develop grit, through deliberate practice you can help your child develop grit.