Call it backbone, courage, determination or fortitude, it is all about GRIT and how we foster that in our children
When most people think of grit, they think of “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” While that is an example of grit, most grit is of the less dramatic kind—the kind which allows a person to keep trying in the face of obstacles large and small.
Setting out to develop grit in your child sounds a bit draconian, but you do want your child to develop the kind of persistence that will allow her to pursue things even when the pursuing feels hard or not worth it. The best way to do this is to help your child see herself as being in process and to see challenges as something to go around rather than as something to stop you in your tracks.
As an adult, your personal grit might come from a combative stance of “No one is going to get the better of me. Nothing is going to beat me.” You might be a perfectionist who is driven by her own high standards. A lot of stress, tension and self-judgement come with that kind of attitude, and it takes a toll on one in the long run. That’s why, if you want to teach your child the kind of grit that will support her in a positive way, focus on looking for workarounds, for outside the box thinking, for finding the joy of small pleasures. In other words, instead of blasting through an obstacle with sheer force of will, teach kids to be problem solvers, to be creative in finding new ways of doing things, to enjoy the present challenge and to be gentle with themselves while they do it.
One complaint I hear from parents a lot is “My child wants to quit dance (or piano, or karate or boy scouts or whatever it is), and I don’t want her to.” As adults, we can see the benefit of sticking with one activity through the hard or boring phase in order to reap the rewards of being more skilled. For children, it is really hard to hold that perspective. It is easier, however, for children who understand that they do not have to be able to do something right now to trust that they will be able to do it eventually. The child who can know in her heart, “I can’t do this yet, but I am working on it,” has the kind of grit needed to keep trying. We can support our children in developing that attitude by telling and modeling a can-do spirit in our own lives, by redirecting the child to a challenge that seems more manageable and by using open-ended question to help them develop their own critical thinking.
Model Being in Process Yourself
As parents we can first model self-talk that develops grit. When we say out loud things like, “I haven’t gotten the numbers for my report to come out right yet, so I’ll have another go after dinner when I have more energy,” we let our child know that it is okay put a problem down for a bit and to come back to it. When we say, “I still haven’t quite gotten the knack of a flaky crust, but I’m really pleased with the filling,” we demonstrate that even though one part of something hasn’t worked out, doesn’t mean we can’t take satisfaction with what has worked out. When we say, “I’m so frustrated. I put so much effort into creating an enticing video, and it didn’t get any clicks. I wonder what I need to adjust for next time,” we show a child that even abject failure only means that you get up and try again.
Redirect a Child to a Manageable Task
With infants we do a pretty good job of managing our children’s frustration levels whether the baby is trying to reach for a rattle or roll over. We let the baby reach out and give her lots of encouragement: “Here, Baby! You can do it! Just a little bit more!” But when we see that the baby is either losing interest or going over the edge of frustration, we bring the rattle into the child’s reach, assuring her success. I tried to take that same approach with my 7th graders. If I saw that a student was either losing interest or was so frustrated she was telling herself she couldn’t do whatever I was asking the class to do, I modified my expectations. Of course, ultimately I wanted all my students to be able to write a well-supported essay, but I didn’t need them to be able to write it all at once. For some students it was a challenge enough to focus just on outlining their argument; others focused on developing a good body paragraph. If a student wants to quit piano because she is struggling with a new piece, maybe rather than quitting piano, she can quit that piece for now and come back to it again in a couple of months.
Help Children Develop Their Own Critical Thinking
Lots of times children give up on something because they are stuck and don’t know how to get around the problem—or how to see it from a different light. Use open-ended questions to help your children expand their possibilities. Let’s go back to the challenging piano piece. One way to deal with it would be to set it aside and work on a less challenging piece. But you could also ask, “What’s the easiest part of this piece? How would it help to start there?” Or “What have you done in the past when you had a hard piece to work on?” Or “What’s the hardest part of this piece? What would be a way to break it down into smaller chunks? (If the child has no idea, your questions can become more pointed like, “What if you wrote the rhythms out separately from the notes and just tapped each brace out?”) Through the use of open-ended questions, you show your kids ways to get around obstacles and at the same time motivate them because now they are carrying out their own plan—not just doing what the teacher is “making” them do.
As children take charge of their own lives by figuring out their own best approach, they start to succeed despite challenge.
Some people say this approach is making things too easy for kids—that true grit is moving forward even when it seems impossible. To me, that doesn’t pass the common sense test. By giving kids small challenges to master, we are giving them strategies for problem solving, tools for facing bigger challenges. To me, it is like training for a marathon. Almost nobody runs a marathon the first day they go out and decide to do it. If you tried to run all 26 miles at once, you would almost certainly fail. On the other hand, if you train and build up your stamina and toughen your feet over time, what would have been impossible becomes possible not only to overcome but to rock. Some children because of war or some other trauma in their lives will have to do the impossible on their own, but for most of our kids we can take the time to strengthen the quality of grit in them bit by bit.