Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


'Grit' Training for Babies?

An infant's needs are different from a child’s and we ignore them at our peril.

The idea of “grit” is hot right now. Schools and businesses are taking up an emphasis on grit, the perseverance to get a job done. Often, Walter Mischel’s research is cited. He tested preschoolers with marshmallows, showing that those who were able to resist eating the marshmallow in early childhood were more likely to be successful and less likely to be delinquent decades later. (See videos here.)

The research is misleading because parenting effects on self-control in babyhood are not explained or understood.

Grit development won’t work for babies. Frustrating a baby has the opposite effect of what it might have for a child over age 6.

Before I describe why, what does it look like when parents are encouraged to force their babies to develop “grit”?

Many parents are bullied into “not spoiling” their babies by family members and professionals toward practices that actually have the opposite effect on the development of self control. These practices include such things as sleep training, forcing babies to sleep alone, to spend most of the day untouched, and to exist on fake food instead of the elixir that breast milk is. In short, the ideal baby is an individualist, independent of the need for mother or father! (See here for a sharp critique of this attitude in parents.)

I see “grit training for babies” also among parents who are affectionate and responsive. They will force their babies to wait for what they need, as if this builds self-control or grit.

They are mistaken. The most critical period for self-control development is in babyhood when many systems underlying self control are scheduled to develop—with caregiver assistance. Baby brains are under vast construction and need to avoid stress as brain and body systems establish themselves in the first 2.5 years.

The neurobiology of self-control is UNDERMINED by denying babies what they evolved to need because distressing babies produces toxic stress— flooding the brain with cortisol, which wipes out existing synapses, changes genes expression that also wipes out synapses and prevents their development. Distressing babies misdirects neurobiological development, which requires affection and companionship care—the human “nest.”

Companionship care includes nearly constant touch, loving response to needs and avoiding baby distress, breastfeeding, play, soothing birth and post-birth experience, and lots of supportive caregivers (the village). (See sample papers here.)

Why are parents forcing independence on their babies?

Psychotherapist Ian D. Suttie in his book, The Origins of Love and Hate, pointed to a significant taboo in US/European society in the early 20th century: the taboo on tenderness. He noted at the time when he wrote the book that it was a greater taboo than sex.

In the century since he wrote, I believe it has only gotten worse. We are inundated with images and discourse that assumes that toughness-without-tenderness is part of being masculine. Women are trying to validate themselves with this same notion as they are told to abandon putting family first and put their primary focus on work and getting ahead.

How often do you hear, when advocating kindness or gentleness: “don’t be naïve/romantic/idealistic”? A toughness-not-tenderness mindset has a hard time perceiving or recognizing any alternative.

The lack of support for family life, especially baby care, leads to undercared-for babies, who experience toxic stress from lack of affection and responsive care, which otherwise help the child develop various systems related to self control. With undercare the baby’s neurobiology is misdeveloped in many ways including being shaped into stress reactivity. Stress reactivity (because it shifts blood flow towards survival actions) can become a permanent disposition resulting in a self-oriented worldview—just like their parents displayed toward the baby to begin with. And so the cycle of self-orientation, toughness-not-tenderness is perpetuated and worsened over generations.

The toughness-not-tenderness worldview leads to undercare for baby, which fosters the same worldview in the baby, if the baby survives and if he or she lacks opportunities to alter it later.

Warning: Successful criminals have “grit.” Grit is one tiny piece of being an ethical/moral/virtuous person. Very much more is required such as skills in ethical sensitivity, ethical judgment, ethical focus and ethical action. (See our materials for educators here.)

How do we counter this society-destroying trend? Here are a few suggestions:

Learn to recognize baby’s signals. When a baby starts to make faces or wiggle uncomfortably, the baby is signaling discomfort and pain. That’s when the caregiver should move in and figure out how to decrease that discomfort. Carrying and holding a baby skin-to-skin increases sensitivity to the baby’s signals. (More here.)

Promote baby-friendly hospital initiatives. Hospitals that respect the bonding of mother and baby at birth support responsive care by parents. This should include only soothing experiences in the perinatal period, avoiding painful experiences, and preventing baby crying.

Hang out with people who support compassionate baby raising. These include Attachment Parenting International (of which I am a board member), Natural Child Project, Holistic Moms. Find your own network of local families that support tender love for babies (not tough love).

Challenge the misinformation. We’ve unfortunately gotten into believing lots of misinformation about babies, for example:

  • that genes determine a child’s outcomes, instead of experience (Wrong)
  • that babies are resilient (Wrong)

and as a result,

  • that parents don’t matter much (Wrong)

What is the truth?

Traditional societies know what people in advanced nations often forget: Parents are sculptors of their child’s personality, especially in the first months of life. Will the child be calm or anxious, sensitive to others or self-concerned, self-regulated or stress reactive? Many of these characteristics are initially shaped in the first months and then in the subsequent early years of life—by affectionate care and LACK OF punishment. Although personality can change later, it’s much harder to change the neurobiology that underlies personality, such as gene expression which takes place during particular periods of maturation.

Support grit training for all but babies. Grit training, as every athlete knows, can work for older children and adults who choose it for themselves. The behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s recommended that young children learn perseverance over several trials by sitting in a room with a sucker while being instructed to wait longer each time before taking a lick. These kinds of exercises can work for older children and adults who can use top-down goal setting to learn new intuitions.

Don’t let tenderness be a taboo in your life. Most religious traditions and Buddhism (a philosophy of life) promote compassion as the primary ideal. This makes sense because the morality that brought about human species success is all about empathic group solidarity and caring for each other.

A toughness-not-tenderness orientation is a sign of deeply rooted pathology, but one that we can change in ourselves and prevent in our children.


Armstrong, K. (2011). Twelve steps to a compassionate life. New York, NY: Anchor.

Darwin, C. (1871/1981). The descent of man. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Kang HJ, Voleti B, Hajszan T, Rajkowska G, Stockmeier CA, Licznerski P, Lepack A, Majik MS, Jeong LS, Banasr M, Son H, Duman RS (August 2012). Decreased expression of synapse-related genes and loss of synapses in major depressive disorder. Nature Medicine 18.

Loye, D. (2000). Darwin’s lost theory of love. New York: Writer’s Press.

Lupien, S.J., McEwen, B.S., Gunnar, M.R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 434-445.

Narvaez, D., & Gleason, T. (2013). Developmental optimization. In D. Narvaez, J., Panksepp, A. Schore, & T. Gleason (Eds.), Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy (pp. 307-325). New York: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L. (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.

Shoda Y, Mischel W, Peake PK. Predicting adolescent cognitive and social competence from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology. 1990;26:978–986.

Skinner, B.F. (1948). Walden Two. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Suttie, I. (1935/1988). The origins of love and hate. London: Free Association Books.

Wilson, E.O. (2012). The social conquest of the earth. New York: Liveright.

More from Darcia F. Narvaez Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today