How (and Why) to Teach Kids to Have More Grit
Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, renowned TED speaker, and bestselling author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, first began studying grit as a seventh-grade math teacher. In 2007, she published a landmark study on grit and is now considered a leading expert on the subject.
Duckworth's research has focused on students who've shown long-term success in their academic and life trajectories. She found that a combination of grit as well as self-control, reliance, and ambition were the most reliable predictors of a positive outcome, rather than intelligence.2 The kids who won the spelling bee, for instance, weren’t necessarily smarter than their peers; they just worked a whole lot harder at studying the words.
Duckworth found that grit matters more for those in reach of their full potential than intelligence, skill, or even grades.
Unlike IQ, which is relatively fixed, grit is the type of skill that anyone can develop.1 Some children may naturally have more grit than others, but there is plenty you can do to help your child develop their grit and perseverance to help them succeed.
Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, agrees that developing skills like "grit, perseverance, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, zest, and curiosity” are more important than IQ. Tough says that these traits can be boosted in children if their parents are able to provide them with enough challenges to work through and overcome. He argues that both adversity and even failure are crucial to a child's development.
So, what can you do to help your child develop more grit?
Let Your Child Find a Passion
Most young children do not have a "passion," though you can help them develop their interests during those early years. And as children grow older, allowing them to pursue an interest they have chosen themselves will help motivate them to engage in the hard work and perseverance needed for success. If a parent chooses the activity, there is less likelihood the child will feel as connected, and they may not want to work as hard to be successful.
One of the characteristics of “gritty” people is that they are motivated to seek happiness through continued focused engagement and they strive for meaning and purpose, so letting a child find their own passion is necessary for the long term.
Place Kids In Activities Out of Their Comfort Zone
Parents should encourage their children to try and continue activities that might be challenging. Encouraging kids to try new things gives them a chance to prove that they can do anything.
Many people may believe that if they are either good or not good at a skill, it is because they were born that way. The problem with this belief is that it leads many kids to give up on things easily if they do not succeed right away. Duckworth suggests that you give your child the opportunity to pursue at least one difficult thing; an activity that requires discipline to practice. The actual activity does not matter so much as the effort and the learning experience that comes with it.
Let Your Kid Get Frustrated
Parents hate to see their kids struggle, but taking risks and struggling is an important way for children to learn. When your child is dealing with a skill, activity, or sport that is difficult to master, resist the urge to jump in and “save” them and do not allow them to quit at the first sign of discomfort. Pay attention to your own levels of anxiety. Don't be afraid of your child's feelings of sadness or frustration; this is how they develop resilience.
When kids never have the ability to succeed at something difficult, they may never develop confidence in their ability to confront challenges. Don't let kids quit just because they are having a bad day.
Allowing your child to give up the moment things get frustrating teaches them that struggling isn't part of working hard. And if they give up, they may never get to witness what greatness could have happened had they worked through those struggles.
So, should you make your kids follow through on all activities, even the ones they whine and cry about? A compromise might be to try finishing all the activities until the end of the season or session. If your child chooses not to sign up again, allow that. What is important is that they pushed through the discomfort, which is a natural part of the process of learning something new.
Model a Growth Mindset
In her 2013 TED Talk, Duckworth said the best way to increase grit in children is to teach what psychologist Carol Dweck, Stanford professor and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, calls a “growth mindset.”
Dweck has found that people with growth mindsets are more resilient and tend to push through struggles because they believe that hard work is part of the process and they do not believe that failure is a permanent condition.
In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence.4 The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset. Children with a fixed mindset may believe they have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that.5
A growth mindset is shaped by adults through language and behavior that we model for kids. In order to encourage a growth mindset, be mindful of your own thinking and the messages you send to your children through your words and actions. Praising kids for being smart suggests that innate talent is the reason for success, while focusing on the process helps them to see how their effort leads to success. When parents talk positively about making mistakes, kids start to think of mistakes as a natural part of the learning process.
If your child is struggling, one of the best things a parent can do is discourage them from quitting at a low point. Instead, use the experience as a way to teach resilience as an opportunity for success.6
Help them brainstorm strategies and make a plan of what actions they will take and how they will proceed, but allow them to take ownership of the solution. A great journey can sometimes have some unappealing emotions, such as being confused, frustrated, or completely bored out of your mind. When children understand that learning is not supposed to be easy all the time and that having a tough time with a skill does not mean they are stupid, this is where resiliency and perseverance develop.
Teach That Failing Is Okay
Talk with your children regularly about your own failures and how you persevered, or ways you could have been more resilient. Children learn from the adults around them, so if you want your children to handle setbacks with grace and calm and become a model for determination, you need to model this yourself.
Talking to your kids about your own failures will help them understand that it is okay to fail, and they will see how people can problem solve and bounce back. Talk about setbacks as they arise.
Help kids build alternative plans and think of different ways to view situations. Show them that being flexible and knowing how to problem solve is a useful and mature quality.
Discuss Effort and Not Accomplishments
The goal of a task is not perfection, and if you intervene constantly, your child will realize that you do not have confidence in their abilities. Engage in family discussions about trying new things, and let each family member talk about things that are difficult for them. Discuss any long-term and short-term goals and how you plan to achieve both. Allow family members to openly share their struggles and how they got past them. Share feelings about challenges and celebrate when family members attempt to persevere through difficult tasks.
Be a Gritty Parent
The best way for kids to learn to be "grittier" is from watching their parents. You can tell kids a lot of things you want them to do and how you want them to act, but the real lesson is in how you act. Show kids that you take on tasks that are sometimes scary, and that you sometimes struggle or fail and then bounce back. Model resilience for your children and show them that failing is nothing to be afraid of.
Manage your own anxiety and stop trying to control your child's actions; instead coach them by doing activities with them, not for them. Continuously encourage your child and teach self-encouragement. Your parental voice eventually becomes the voice in their head so remember to engage in positive talks as much as possible. Though criticism could discourage your child from wanting to try again, there are times when constructive criticism is necessary for their growth.
A Word From Verywell
Giving your child a chance to fail and bounce back is one of the greatest gifts you can give as a parent. Allow your kids to struggle and feel discomfort. Allow them to go through the emotions of disappointment and confusion, and help them figure out the next steps to make the situation better and more productive. It is within this learning process that they will develop perseverance, resiliency, and true grit, which will lead them in the direction of success for their future.