Why We Should Be Talking With Our Children About True Grit

It's time to bring grit into the conversation around parenting your child.

Posted Mar 07, 2019

When a parent asks me what quality their child needs most to succeed in the future, I do not say a high IQ or good grades. Instead, I talk about the concept of true grit, popularized by University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Dr. Angela Duckworth. Grit is defined as the ability to persevere and sustain effort in the face of adversity and challenges. As a parent, you can teach your child to have grit by encouraging them to say to themselves, “I will try,” or, “I will do my best.” In essence, you reinforce a “can do” attitude, even when something is tough for them. We need to develop this positive attitude throughout childhood so that children do not develop a tendency to give up easily.

As a psychologist and parent coach, Dr. Lisa Dissinger practices what she preaches with her own son, Peter. She recalls encouraging Peter as a young child to try his best and to talk to himself in a positive manner, even when something was hard for him. Here’s a recent conversation they had looking back on how this mindset played out while he was growing up:

Dr. Dissinger: Peter, how do you feel you developed grit?

Peter: It’s really challenging to pinpoint the moments where I felt my “grit” developing first-hand. I think it first came in the moments where I failed or experienced rejection in middle and high school —I was forced to confront the reality that success and results came only to those who fought through the obstacles presented to them.

And Mom, I have to give you credit. You were there when I was rejected from extracurriculars, organizations or social groups with the same message: “You have a right to be frustrated, but don’t give up.” Having a parent reinforce that perseverance is more important than success encouraged me to develop a mindset in which I embraced failure and continually told myself to move forward.

Dr. Dissinger: Were there particularly important moments in college where your grit came in handy?

Peter: Absolutely. Grit is the biggest reason I succeeded at Washington University. In my sophomore fall semester, I enrolled in a history class with a professor I had not properly vetted. The course was an extreme burden during the semester and the professor’s grading system was arbitrary. Instead of writing off the course or dropping, I learned how to write papers that specifically satisfied the professor and studied harder for our tests. When my housing for senior year fell apart, I focused on finding a new plan and forgave the former friends who blindsided me. There are plenty of other moments I could point to, but grit was a mechanism that allowed me to pull on a reservoir of strength when the going got tough. It also forced me to be optimistic and see the glass as half full, instead of allowing negative forces in my life to drag me down.

I saw too many intelligent, outgoing and emotionally capable students give up on college—whether they dropped a major or stopped applying to selective organizations. I wonder Mom, what would you say as a psychologist to the parents of college-bound students who may not have had opportunities to develop grit?

Dr. Dissinger: Most of the time, it is our self talk that gets in the way of success. If we change the ticker tape in our brain to say, “I will try my best,” instead of, “I can’t,” or, “This will never be good enough,” grit will begin to develop over time. Though adolescents are prone to ignoring parental advice, it is worthwhile to try and help cultivate this mindset in day-to-day conversations. Alternatively, a cognitive therapist is a great resource to help a teenager develop positive self talk and ultimately, greater resilience .

Photo courtesy of Peter Dissinger
Dr. Lisa Dissinger and her son, Peter Dissinger
Source: Photo courtesy of Peter Dissinger

Peter: Are there any other related concepts that parents should be talking to their children about?

Dr. Dissinger: Yes, grit goes hand in hand with resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from adversity! If your child does not have perseverance and the ability to tolerate frustration on a daily basis, they will not be able to rebound from life obstacles and move forward through their mid to late adolescence. Instead, your young adult is likely to get stuck and unable to make important life choices, which require both grit and resilience. As a parent, you need to consistently reinforce your adolescent every time they show resilience in the face of adversity, basically take a verbal “snapshot” of when they are being flexible and bouncing back.