Raising Gritty Kids

What is Grit?

I was first introduced to the concept of “grit” while watching the movie True Grit. If you haven’t seen it, 14-year-old Mattie Ross leaves her home in Illinois alone to find the man who killed her father in Arkansas. She finds Rooster Cogburn and declares him the man with the “grit” necessary to help her go into Indian Territory, find the killer, and bring him to justice. The journey ahead is hard and the characters are continually beset with challenges and close calls, but they succeed through sheer determination. Through Grit.

There is a lot of talk about “grit” and raising children with “grit” in today’s psychology and education journals.  My sons’ school even did a great workshop on building determination through failure; which inspired me to read more about grit.

In her Ted Talk, Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist, MacArthur Genius Grant winner, and former teacher, discusses grit. Her research has found how much grit and determination a child has to be a better indicator for success than IQ scores or talent. That it is more important to have the tenacity to pick yourself up after a fall and keep going than it is to have natural talent or incredible intelligence.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future; day-in and day-out. Not just for the week. Not just for the month. But for years. And working really hard to make that future a reality.”

I have a gritty child and a no-so-gritty child (NSG child). One of my children, the NSG child, LOVES to win. He will do anything to win and if he loses, or even thinks he’s going to lose, he cries and wants to quit.  The other one doesn’t even seem to realize he’s lost and just wants to keep repeating the task until he’s satisfied with the outcome.  Being a life coach and Master’s Degree of Organization Development holder I immediately went into my psychology books and education journals to find the best way to help our NSG-child find his inner grit.

What is success? What is failure?

Educators and psychologists define success as a mathematical equation.

Success = (effort x ability)
manageable task

Written out, if students take the maximum effort they are capable of, multiplied by the abilities they have, and put those into a task the can achieve they will have success.

Simple, right?

So what is failure? Well, it’s not achieving the success you think you should have had in a task.  Putting in too little effort. Not having enough natural talent.  Taking on a task that is to complex or difficult. In the equation above, having any of the numbers out of balance can lead to failure.

Failure isn’t nice. It doesn’t feel good. And it’s not supposed to.  At a primal level, failure hurts to ensure we do everything we can not to feel that hurt.  But failure is necessary in giving kids grit.

We’ll say a student always puts in the maximum effort they are capable of.  And we’ll say they have a good level of ability. The trick to success in learning is to make the task one that is in an area slightly beyond what they can already do without help. This is called being in the Zone of Proximal Development.

The concept of the Zone of Proximal Development was developed by the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who believed the best learning could be achieved by guiding students into situations where they are not 100% assured of success and failure is an option and experiences where they would need guidance to succeed.

How do our kids get “gritty”?

Praise the work, not the achievement.

Carol Dweck, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, has done a lot of research on the effect of motivating children’s performance. Children who are praised for effort, rather than outcome care more about the process of learning. Whereas the children who are praised only for succeeding care solely about the final grade rather than what they actually learned.

I know that when my kids show me something they’re proud of the first words out of my mouth are “Good job.” In our society the words “good job” are used so often they don’t mean anything anymore. They are merely pacifiers for people who don’t know what else to say.  Try telling them “You worked really hard on that,” or “I can really see all the effort you put into drawing that picture,” instead of defaulting to “good job.”

Let them take risks

John C. Maxwell, author of Falling Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, says that in order to actually succeed at something worthwhile you need to take risks. Risks should be calculated with something at stake and a payoff at the end.

A risk could be anything from trying a math problem that seems to be above a child’s current level, to letting them fill the washing machine without supervision, to allowing your child to participate in a ropes course.  A risk can be anything that pushes them beyond their comfort zone and into the Zone of Proximal Development.

Allowing children to take these calculated risks helps them to build their confidence in themselves. They learn who they are: their strengths and weaknesses, what they enjoy doing, and how badly they want to succeed. On the flip-side, it is also crucial for us, as parents, to see our children taking these calculated risks and succeeding in order to build confidence in our own parenting.

Let them fail

This is a tricky one and it tied in with letting them take risks.  As I noted previously, knowing your child is going to fail and then letting it happen is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do as a parent. But failure is necessary for building grit. They need to know that life goes on after a failure and that they can survive and try again.

When they fail don’t say it doesn’t matter. It’s natural for parents to try and soothe away the hurt, but the failure matters to them. By saying it doesn’t matter you are invalidating their feelings, thereby removing the stimulus that makes them strive for improvement.

In 2005, Steve Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University. He goes into detail about the building of Apple. The dreams he had; the hard work that it took; and the success he and Woz were having. And then he was fired. Very publicly and very painfully. He felt he had failed. But, and he admits this, if he had never been fired he would have never started NeXT or Pixar or met his wife or made Toy Story and he would have never been in a position to come back to Apple and spearhead the iPod revolution.

Think of what would have happened if Steve Jobs had only success in his life?

Analyze the outcome

Building grit starts with looking at what happened – whether you won or lost – and analyzing it. We’ve all done it or seen it done. Steve Jobs certainly thought about what happened.  And haven’t we all watched the after-game interviews of a ball game and listened to the reporters ask the players, “So, what happened out there?” The players start talking about their game, highlighting the successful and unsuccessful plays crucial to the outcome of the game.

That is analyzing the outcome.

We use Appreciative Inquiry in our house. Appreciative Inquiry is a way of analyzing situations or organizations using positively worded statements to talk about tough topics. For example saying What can I improve on instead of What went wrong makes confronting failure feel less unpleasant and more constructive.  Appreciative Inquiry is in organization development to help executives and employees focus on accepting where the company is right now, strengthening what is going well, looking at what could be improved, and how to improve or change those areas. (David Cooperrider has a great book on this, published in 2007.)

As a parent it’s hard to slow down and think about what currently “is” when you’re trying to do laundry, cook dinner, and coordinate homework simultaneously, but that is just what is needed in order to have a grit-building conversation.

It’s especially important when you are helping at NSG child develop grit. A grit-building conversation after a little league game or a math test would look like this:

  • Hey! You won (or lost)! (acknowledge what is)
  • What do you was your best moment? (look at what went right)
  • Where do you think you could improve for next time? (what didn’t work)
  • What do you think you’ll do next time? (How can you improve on what went right and wrong)

Children who are low on grit are very reluctant to face their weaknesses. My NSG son will stall for time, change the topic, or even pretend to be reading a book to delay talking about where he fell down.  However, he loves talking about what he did well. Using Appreciative Inquiry and starting out by analyzing the good moments helps to get my son talking and gets us into reframing failures into an Ah-Ha moments.

Get rid of labels.

When your daughter comes home with an A on her test it’s so easy look at her beaming face and say, “You are so good at math!” We mean it with all our hearts and we really do want our babies to think they are good in math and talented in music.   However, these labels can be double edged.

Labels such as “good in math,” “quite a reader,” or “you’re smart” actually build our children’s identity in such a way that these traits become fixed in their minds. They believe this is what they are. It limits what they can become.

They are good in math instead of someone who works hard at math.

They are smart instead of someone who tries their best.

Carol Dweck called children who identify themselves in these ways as having a “fixed mindset” in her paper Parent Praise to 1 – to 3 – year old Predicts Children’s Motivational Framework 5 Years Later.

In her book titled, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck discusses studies that demonstrate that children who have these fixed mindsets and fail believe that they failed because they aren’t smart enough or good enough to succeed. They believe something is wrong with them.  For example, “a good reader” who then becomes challenged by a book tends to stop reading that book.  They stop rather than fail because if they fail they become “not a good reader” anymore and that creates an identity crisis.

However, children who have been told, “You worked hard” and had the effort they put in praised have developed “growth mindsets.” Children with growth mindsets view these same failures as minor setbacks and as opportunities to learn.  They want to try again after they experience failure.

Get gritty with them

In Facing Failure and Breeding Success, Mr. Richard Barth and his co-authors suggested restructuring schools into a safe places to encounter and learn from failures.  As parents it behooves us to take it a step further and restructure the home into an effort laboratory.

I always felt as though I were on a grand adventure when I was in my college chem labs.  Full of unknowns and potential explosions.  Like any laboratory, this one is full of experiments and unknowns to be discovered, but hopefully with few explosions.

One of the most fun experiments in the effort laboratory is a regular family game night. Board games like Settlers of Catan, Stratego, or Castle Panic are wonderful for not only teaching grit, but also building family bonds. Our family game night is Sundays. After the game is over we have fun talking about how the game went. “Wow! That was fun.  H won! I thought I did great at X. What do you think you did great at? I think I should have moved this piece earlier. What do you think you could have done better at? What do you think you might do next time?” It teaches grit in a fun and subtle, but meaningful way.

Another fun experiment is doing a project together.  Planning a long-term project with your child, something that isn’t done on the first day and that will challenge the both of you, is a great way to develop grit.

The project can be anything that requires long-term goals.  From building a shed or peddle car to planting and caring for a garden.  The important thing is that you make it a habit to analyze how the project is going and make adjustments as you go along.  And don’t be afraid of letting them see you struggle.  You’re being an example of what having grit looks likes.

My husband and the NSG child (along with a visit from my husband’s father) built a slate patio two summers ago. They had to rip out the vegetation that was there, level the ground, and put in the slate. It was an entire summer of slowly working and adjusting and fixing.  The NSG child learned a lot about grit and at the end we were able to have a lovely barbeque to celebrate our achievement!

Feeling the grit

Some children take longer than others to develop some grittiness.  They aren’t very confident in themselves and, therefore, don’t want to put in much effort.  The key to getting them hooked on feeling gritty is to help them experience some successes.

Getting grit into your child can be a slow process.  It starts with asking yourself a few questions.  What is your child talented at?  Are there any manageable tasks you can think of where your child can experience success with small amounts of effort?

Once they’ve experienced a series successes and you have some practice at analyzing the outcomes in a fun and low-key way, make the tasks require just a little more effort.  Don’t worry about going slowly.   One of the worst things that can happen is that your son or daughter feels like they are too far over their heads too quickly and respond by shutting down.

If that does happen take a few more minutes than usual to analyze the outcome.  Then take a few steps back and have them try things you know they can already do to build up their confidence again.  Or, if they want to, you can assist them on the task.  Let them take the lead, but be there to lend a hand.

My NSG child is becoming grittier everyday.   It all started with praising his efforts to build his confidence instead of using labels as praise.  Then we started giving him tasks we knew he could succeed at and as he found his efforts rewarded with success he wanted to try harder.

Once he found a certain number of successes we began analyzing his outcomes using Appreciative Inquiry.  Game night was crucial for this as it included everyone in the analysis and we kept the tone fun.  As he become more comfortable with the whole process we started pushing the tasks into the Zone of Proximal Development.

Now he is excelling at math and trying some of the challenge problems his teacher is putting in front of him instead of just turning in blank pages when he felt challenged.  He is back to reading anything he can get his hands on instead of sticking to less challenging books.  And, as you read previously, last week he took on his fear of heights and did the ropes course down in Langenbruck.

I can’t wait to see what he’s going to try next!

3 responses to “Raising Gritty Kids”

  1. Outstanding article – you are a great writer and the information would also apply to any age —great information and so informative. —Keep up the great work —- kay

    Sent from my iPad



    1. Thanks, Kay! We have seen such huge changes in our NSG child since we started complimenting his effort rather than his wins.


  2. […] The point of doing home learning this way is to help the kids practice self-assessment, goal-setting, and have routine attempts at experiencing success and failures – all of which teach grit. (Click here for more about raising gritty kids!) […]


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