Helping Our Children Develop Grit

Life lessons about the importance of grit

Last month, this column provided some pointers designed to help children set realistic, attainable goals. Unfortunately, as we adults know all too well, even realistic, attainable goals require effort and persistence to attain. This month I want to focus on what we can do to support and encourage our children as they strive to meet their goals.

Last February, the United States Department of Education released a major report entitled Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century. The report’s primary message asserts that to succeed in school and life, personal attributes and social skills are every bit as important as intelligence. One of the most important of these attributes is grit. In this context, grit refers to a student’s ability to persevere in the face of difficulty until goals are met. The concept of grit is well established in scientific research and is also a central theme in our American culture and value system (think of the winter at Valley Forge, Helen Keller or the four young African American men who, in 1960, sat at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC).

Fortunately, given its importance, grit can be taught. There are many ways that parents can help their children develop this important skill. This month, I would like to focus on three: 1) helping our children develop an optimistic mindset; 2) praising our children effectively; and 3) helping our children cope with setbacks, disappointments and failure.

Optimistic Mindset — All of us remember the classic children’s story The Little Engine That Could. In that tale, the little engine develops an optimistic mindset (“I think I can”) and achieves its goal of making it over the hill.  A profound life lesson is contained in this simple fable — how we view our capacity to learn and achieve has a direct relationship to our successes. Children who view themselves as “not good at math,” or “dumb” will have a much more difficult time succeeding in school than children who view themselves as capable, able to overcome barriers, and in the case of school performance, capable of learning.  Helping our children develop an optimistic mindset is one of the most important things we can do as parents. One strategy toward that goal is to share with your children a life experience that required grit. Knowing that you had to overcome adversity can inspire your children to build confidence in their own abilities. A component in cultivating a child’s optimistic mindset depends in part on delivering effective praise.

Effective Praise — Praising children is one of the best ways to promote their self-esteem, but oftentimes we do it ineffectively. Have you ever heard a parent (or ourselves!) say to a child “good job!” only to be met with a look of confusion? Likely, the child did not know exactly what action resulted in the praise.  n some cases, particularly when children are in groups with siblings or classmates, a child may not realize that praise was directed at him or her specifically. To be effective, praise must have three elements. First, we must ensure that a child knows who it is that is being praised, particularly in group settings. Be sure to direct praise at children by acknowledging them by name. Second, state the action that is garnering the praise. And lastly, we must say something positive. So rather than “good job,” try “Bill, you did a really great job shoveling the snow off of the front porch.” And we must remember that while praise for good deeds and a job well done is important, we must also praise children’s efforts — not just their accomplishments. Ample research exists that demonstrates a positive correlation between the praise for children’s efforts and their likelihood of persevering in the future. If we only praise children’s accomplishments, we run the risk of transmitting the idea that failure will be a disappointment to us, which can actually discourage the likelihood that they will remain persistent in trying to reach their goals.

Coping with Setbacks — Inevitably, despite our children’s and our best efforts, children will suffer disappointments, setbacks and failures. Children (and adults) who have well-developed grit perceive setbacks as challenges to be overcome; and failures as learning opportunities. When our children fail, we need to recognize their efforts, express confidence in their ability to learn from the situation, and help them identify what they could do differently in the future. To paraphrase a Chinese proverb, children with grit fall down twice and get up three times. 

Finally, I would strongly suggest that your family watch and discuss the short video Life = Risk—Motivation (shown above). I, along with the staff at the Devereux Center for Resilient Children, use this inspiring video all the time in our trainings. Like the Little Engine That Could, this video teaches all of us an important life lesson about the importance of grit.

Paul LeBuffe is the Director of the Devereux Center for Resilient Children in Villanova, PA, whose mission is promoting the resilience of all children and the adults who care for them; he will be contributing to this blog on a monthly basis. More information on promoting resilience can be found at the center’s website.

Categories: MK Memo