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How Can We Help Our Children Become “Grittier”?

Discouragement and disillusionment are the enemies of grit.

Last month, I was privileged to join a discussion of Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED Talk on grit. In her talk, Duckworth summarized her important research. She has found evidence, in many different settings (for example, at West Point, at the National Spelling Bee, and in the Chicago public schools) that doing well - in school and in life - depends not only on intelligence and talent, but on passion and perseverance, a quality she calls “grit.”

At the conclusion of her talk, Duckworth acknowledges a gap in our understanding, and she challenges us. We know that grit is important; we know very little, however, about how children develop this essential ingredient of success. Angela asks, “What can parents do to help their children become grittier – to develop a work ethic that keeps them motivated for the marathon, not just the sprint?” She cites Carol Dweck's research on a growth mindset as a beginning answer to this question.

In today’s post, I will take up Angela’s challenge and suggest additional ways that parents can help their children become grittier. (I have discussed some of these ideas in previous posts.)

As a child and adolescent therapist, I have talked with many students who lacked grit. As Angela tells us, they are often talented and smart. But when it is time to write an essay, practice an instrument, or study for an exam, they procrastinate or give up. Parents, worried about their child’s future, urgently ask, “Why can’t he ‘connect the dots’ between effort and success? Why doesn’t he care?”

In my experience, the answer to these questions is almost always, “Because he is discouraged.” Discouragement, the story goes, is the devil’s favorite tool, “because it makes all my other tools more effective.”

Children may mask their discouragement with defiant or rebellious attitudes, or by blaming others, and they may pretend that they don’t care. Children say they don’t care, but they do care.

How often do we understand the problem of children’s motivation in this way? How often do we see a child’s lack of effort not as a problem of discouragement but as a “behavior” problem? How often do we blame the influence of peers, or television and other media distractions? How often do we believe that his effort can be improved with repeated lectures or admonishments?

A Different Perspective on Motivation and Effort

Here is a different view of children’s motivation and effort, based on a contemporary understanding of children’s emotions.

Motivation begins with interest. Neuroscientists now regard interest as a fundamental human emotion and, perhaps, a child’s first emotion – an emotion that guides our engagement in the world. Interest leads to exploration and to the development of projects. Projects then become ambitions and goals.

When I talk with “unmotivated” students, I often find that they are interested in many things (although not in their schoolwork). And where there is interest, there is a desire to learn, to know more. If we look hard enough, we will find in every child some interest and a desire to do well.

The solution to the problem of a child’s lack of motivation therefore begins with our enthusiastic interest in our children’s interests - even if these are not the interests we would choose. All of the highly “purposeful” adolescents and young adults in William Damon’s recent study had the enthusiastic support of their family, mentors and friends.

Sustained effort is another matter. All constructive activity involves moments of anxiety and frustration, discouragement and self-doubt. Children who lack grit too readily give in to these feelings. Often, they anticipate criticism instead of encouragement (and they may have become self-critical). To improve their skills, children need criticism. But they need encouragement even more. Persistent criticism is deeply destructive to any child’s initiative and perseverance.

If we pay attention, as Carol Dweck advises, not only to a child’s performance, but also to the process of learning, we will observe these moments of anxiety and frustration. We now have an opportunity to talk with kids, to let them know that frustrations are part of life, that we have also experienced disappointments, and that we have bounced back. Many young children seem to benefit from talking about the disappointments and frustrations endured by their heroes, baseball players, for example, who sometimes strike out. In baseball, it is often said, even the best hitters fail twice as often as they succeed.

Every time a child is able to experience, but then bounce back from, frustration and disappointment, she has gained some increment of perseverance and self-discipline.

The Importance of Ideals

Some of these kids have also become disillusioned.

Motivation and grit are sustained by ideals. Ideals make learning relevant and meaningful. When children become disillusioned, they can no longer draw on this important source of motivation. I have talked with too many deeply disillusioned children and adolescents, and they are not doing well in their lives. They find it especially difficult to sustain effort toward long-term goals.

It may be difficult for any of us to work hard over the long run based on the goal of individual achievement alone. We are supported, however, in our perseverance, by the experience of helping others. A substantial body of research suggests that when children and adolescents help others (for example, by tutoring younger children) their own intrinsic work values and self-esteem are strengthened.

It would be hard to find a better role model for grit than one of my childhood heroes, Jackie Robinson. We can all benefit from Jackie’s philosophy: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Copyright Kenneth Barish, Ph.D.

Kenneth Barish is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child's Emotions and Solving Family Problems. Pride and Joy is winner of the 2013 International Book Award.

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