Ryan displays warmth and an easy confidence, a certain comfort even in the face of his own discomfort. He emanates a sense of well-being— an awareness what he can and cannot do— what he knows and what is he needs to learn, and the steps he is willing to take to achieve his goals. There is not a sense of urgency to his actions, but rather a steadfastness — a focus— that feels unusual for a seventeen year old boy.
He has grown into a man who can lead — can both serve and be of service — who will protect those around him with the tools he has been given. He is not a soldier— he is not a superhero — he is a regular boy who has developed grit.
Grit is the avant-garde character trait that has crept into the vocabulary of affluent suburban parents. Why this sudden infatuation with a word that, until a few years ago, evoked images of John Wayne with an eye patch and flask of whiskey?
For starters, it is a powerful, yet nontraditional predictor of future success both in academics and in the workplace. It is also believed to be the single character trait which separates the “top tier” of students and employees from the “second tier.” This means that uber-competitive parents now have a new focus, and it’s gritty.
I’m also well aware that privileged, white parents are primarily the ones focused on developing this character trait. I don’t imagine that today in Ferguson, Missouri parents are wondering, hmm, am I raising my children with the tenacity to persevere with difficult goals?
Personal safety trumps grit any day of the week.
Last year my youngest child started kindergarten. I’d just spent the past three years working with researchers from Brown and Brandeis University, who were studying learning habits of children for my book, The Learning Habit. I came prepared to the school’s open house with a legal size notepad filled with burning questions: Did they impart a growth mindset in the classroom? How do they encourage learning through frustration and failure?
Much to my surprise, the majority of time was given over to explaining the grave nature of lock- down drills at the school: the hiding of their five- and six-year-old children; the black-out panels teachers use to cover windows; the fully armed police officers who came to the school during each practice. I had never heard intimate details of the drills. I had never pictured my five-year-old daughter tucked away in a closet like a winter coat, waiting silently for the footsteps of a police officer.
When you are concerned about your child’s personal safety, nothing else matters. Privileged or not, this is a truth no parent can escape. I blinked away tears and knew that if I spoke, my voice would crack. In that moment, I didn’t give a crap about grit or any of my other questions… they now felt pretentious.
I felt a range of emotions as the principal spoke; mostly, what I experienced was fear.
Fear is a powerful weapon; I get it. The idea that a child could be shot dead in school is horrifying. The notion that a child could be unarmed and shot dead in the street is equally horrifying. Talking about these fears and coming up with plans to understand and address fear is the most important thing a parent can do; both for our children and for ourselves.
Maybe the definition of grit also means teaching children to find their way around fear: fear of injury, fear of loss, fear of prejudice, fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of making a mistake, or fear of disappointing others.
When kids are helped to normalize those fearful feelings — to think up strategies they can employ, to work toward a goal —they are going to be less fearful. Grit and goals go hand-in-glove. These goals and dreams are crucial: they calm children by focusing them on their potential and what they can do; they empower them to feel in control of their own destiny. Anyone who has ever been blinded by fear or anger knows how essential it is to regain that sense of control.
As powerful a weapon as fear can be, when kids learn to manage it, it can be an incredible source of motivation.
After all the interviews I conducted for the book, The Learning Habit, I never found one single story about a boy who was born with the ability to perform physics at the age of three, or a five-year-old girl who could hit a 40-mile-an-hour softball. I did, however, unearth stories of children and parents who persevered through unthinkable hardships and achieved their goals.
Ryan (mentioned earlier in this story) was awarded a full scholarship to Providence College for basketball. He is viewed as a superhero by his teammates.
“He didn’t really stand out until high school,” his mother recalled.
It’s true; if you were able to travel back in time and see these “superheroes” when they were six or ten or even twelve, you probably wouldn’t notice anything particularly spectacular, unique, or gifted about them. When a child simply continues to work day after day, consistently expending the effort to improve their skills, refusing to quit regardless of their fears and insecurities—their skills improve. It’s not a superpower, and it’s not magic; it’s sheer, dogged tenacity.
There’s a humility to grit that is rarely celebrated in the United States. At a certain point in high school, those kids who just refused to give up will slowly pull in front of the pack.
Today in Ferguson, Missouri we see a town that has been devastated by fear and anger. Schools have closed – which makes it unrealistic to expect kids to focus on educational goals. There is no outlet for children and families to discuss their feelings – their fears – or just blow off some pent up steam. The United Way is trying to assist families, but it’s complicated. They had opened a drop-in center with counselling services for families. One child, a twelve year old boy, stated that he was terrified to fall asleep, so he now slept with his older sister. Sadly, that drop-in center has been closed.
“Superheroes” are great fantasy role models because they never give up. In real life, children have to earn powers, but in time, they become super. Kids who develop grit, like Ryan, have worked for their triumphs. Without places for children and their families to talk about what’s happened to them, get support and guidance, formulate plans, and find ways to feel safe again – I don’t see how we’ll see any superheroes come out of Ferguson.
Rebecca Jackson is co-author of The Learning Habit: A Groundbreaking Approach to Homework and Parenting That Helps Our Children Succeed in School and Life.