Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Raising Gritty Kids

Courage does not always roar.
Sometimes courage is the quiet voice
at the end of the day saying,
"I will try again tomorrow."
                 --Mary Ann Radmacher

Have you ever noticed how some kids can be easily discouraged? They experience a setback that sees their shoulders slump, heads bow, and bodies drag.

Other children, however, seem to possess an unstoppable urge to push through problems. Sure, they get down and feel lousy when things don't work out, but within minutes - sometimes within seconds - they're back at it again. Trying, trying, bouncing back and working at things again.

The capacity for perserverance and enduring on the way to mastery of a challenge is referred to as "grit", and grit appears to be a considerable factor in the success we, and our children, achieve in life.

There is no doubt that IQ and personality can contribute in important ways to success. But they do not guarantee success in any measure. US President Calvin Coolidge said it this way:
Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
Coolidge is suggesting that the grittier we are - the more we're willing to take some hard knocks but keep on getting up in pursuit of a goal - the more likely it is that we'll get "there" (wherever "there" may be).

In a series of studies conducted over the past decade, grit has been shown to be a significant contributor to success in a variety of fields. And while grit can be something that's simply in each of us, there are specific things we can do to get grittier ourselves, and to help our children develop grit as well.

First, share stories of determination and courage with children so they can see the power of grit, determination, persistence, or whatever else you want to call it. Point out the times in their lives where they persist and show some grit. Ask them about how it felt. What were the alternatives? Was it worth it? These kinds of discussions invariably highlight the immense value of doing something challenging, and struggling with it.

My eldest daughter has been struggling with playing the piano. The easy songs are long gone now, and as the difficulty of new pieces increases, her grittiness has been waning.

We talked about this issue and reflected on how it feels to persist and get through a piece. My 11 year-old recognised the sense of accomplishment that accompanies her successes as she goes from not understanding how to play a piece at all through to playing it fluidly. We talked specifically about how we need to struggle and that the struggle makes it worthwhile.

Knowing that it is normal to struggle, and knowing that persistence pays off are critical to developing a gritty child.

Second, do difficult things yourself, and demonstrate grit.

I've recently begun guitar lessons. My children enjoy watching me make mistakes and then practice again and again. Similarly, they have gained valuable insights into determination as I have completed a Ph. D., and pursued energetic physical goals in training for bike racing.

Third, if your children demonstrate exceptional commitment to a particular goal then support them with as many resources as practical. This valuable blog post will provide some great tips on how to be supportive, but not overbearing, in your children's goals.

Fourth, don't just encourage intensity and focus. While these things are important, they can burn out. Grit requires stamina and a long-term view of a challenge. Perhaps your child wishes to be a great sportsperson, a musician, or an astronaut. In every case, short spurts of energy will be insufficient. Seeing the goal as a marathon and developing the patience to slowly progress from one day to the next is vital.

Fifth, when you are sure - and your child is sure - that this goal is the one then don't be afraid to focus solely on the goal. Childhood should be about exploration, creativity, and experiencing new things. But success requires focus. Eventually your child should, with appropriate guidance, be able to make a determination of what she really wants to excel at. Each of our children have tried several sports and musical instruments. As they get older we ask them which activities mean the most to them, which ones they wish to be really good at, and which ones are less important. As our children make these choices we put more energy and resources into them.

Grittiness is a mindset. When our children have it in their mind that they will reach their goals, and particularly when they have good support around them, their gritty determination will be the asset that causes them to rise above smarter, more talented, better educated people and achieve success as a lifelong habit.

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