My 9 year old daughter and I sat on the couch with her ukulele as she cried and raged- “I can’t do it!” She threatened to rip up her sheet music. She wanted to quit- but I repeated the family rule: You can’t quit in a low point. In that moment I wanted to give up as well (who cares if she can play the ukulele?) but I knew something bigger was at stake. Her fear of failure and doubt in herself was making it hard to even start.
I wasn’t willing to give up on her when she wanted to give up on herself. I want her to be resilient in the face of life’s challenges and her own setbacks. I want her to be gritty.
What’s grit? Psychologist Angela Duckworth literally wrote the book on grit. She has studied children and adults in challenging situations and has found the number one predictor of success is how gritty they are. She defines grit as passion and perseverance for long term goals and the stamina and hard work necessary to make those goals a reality.
Grit makes it possible for us to achieve our goals- get on the honour roll, work hard enough to get that promotion. Grit is not only important for academic and professional goal achievement but for personal fulfillment. You need to be gritty to do anything hard: run a marathon, learn to skateboard, perfect that souffle recipe. Some social scientists think grit is the biggest predictor of a happy and productive life.
So how do you raise gritty kids?
Peaceful parenting encourages grit.
The answer it turns out is much the same as how you raise kind, responsible and respectful kids. I call it peaceful parenting- Duckworth calls it ‘wise’ parenting. Peaceful parenting is all about setting high expectations for your children (in terms of their behaviour) and then providing the support they need to meet those expectations (empathy and guidance.) Duckworth describes ‘wise’ parents in much the same way.
Growth mindset encourages grit.
Parents who want gritty kids model and teach their kids about growth mindset. Growth mindset is “I can’t do it… yet.” Growth mindset is a belief in your ability to change and grow. Parenting with growth mindset is “Hey you might not be very good at baseball right now but you love to play and want to ake the team so I will practice with you every night and on weekends.” (Shout out to my husband!)
Passionate parents encourage grit.
It’s also important that we as parents model grit for our children. We have to show passion and perseverance for goals. Our children emulate us. What long term goals do you have? Let your children see your passion- take that art class you always dreamed of. Train for a half-marathon. How’s YOUR growth mindset? What do you say out loud when you make a mistake? If you make a mistake do you say, “I’m so stupid.” Or do you say, “Wow that didn’t work. Let me try that again.”
What else can we do to raise gritty kids?
Try the Family Hard Thing Rule (adapted from Angela Duckworth’s book Grit)
Family Hard Things
1- Everyone in the family has to do a hard thing. (If you’re passionate about your work and your children can see that- it counts.)
2- The hard thing is the person’s choice. Passion for a pursuit is necessary to carry us through the hard times.
3- Your hard thing should be hard and interesting. (School is hard, texting with friends is interesting, skateboarding is hard and interesting. Skateboarding is my 12 year old son’s hard thing.)
4- You can change your hard thing but you can’t quit on a bad day. (Duckworth suggests a natural end- end of a round of lessons, etc. I’m encouraging my not to quit ukulele until she knows how to play. Then she can decide if it is something she wants to continue.)
Here’s your “how-to”—What does parenting for grit look like in the day-to-day?
Have faith in your child and provide tons of support– both emotional and concrete support.
1- High expectations: Believe in your child. Expect that your child will be successfully able follow through on something she is trying to do- whether it’s a challenge big or small.
Grit is built every day and over time. Learning to play the ukulele is a big challenge. A smaller challenge (but one that still feels big to the child probably) would be learning to tie shoes or do up a zipper.
2- Give your child the support she needs to reach her goal:
Provide emotional support:
- Encouragement: “I believe in you.” “I know you can do it if you keep trying.”
- Empathy: “This is really hard.” “It’s frustrating to not get it right away.” “I know how you feel.”
- Recognize effort: “Wow you are working so hard at this.”
- Don’t step in and take over. This tells your child “you can’t do this.” (Unless your child asks for help- then you can say, “You’re so close! Let me help you with the zipper this time.”)
- Promote growth mindset. “You can’t do it YET.” “Keep trying.”
- Support unconditionally. You know your love isn’t dependent on whether or not your child is successful- make sure SHE knows it. “I love you no matter what.”
Provide concrete support:
Ask yourself what your child needs to accomplish her goal. How can you scaffold her (provide the support!) to get there?
Some scaffolding could include:
- Demonstrate (or find someone else who can, or a YouTube video)
- Break it down. If your child can see the steps to achieve a goal, it won’t seem so overwhelming.
Be there. Sometimes a child needs our reassuring presence when he’s trying something hard.
That day on the couch with my daughter and her ukulele?
I had high expectations: I told her I loved her enough to not let her give up. And I wasn’t giving up- I knew this was something she wanted to do so I supported her as she struggled. She could quit after she tried but not before.
I was supportive emotionally: I told her I believed in her, I knew she could do it, I encouraged her and I welcomed her emotions (anger, frustration, sadness) as they came.
I enlisted concrete help: With a little help from her brother demonstrating a few times and breaking it down for her, she finally put her hands on it and tried. We also listened to the song a few times. I made sure she knew how to do the chords. Her brother suggested she slow down to make it easier. I sat with her while she struggled. When she could finally do the chord changes quickly enough to hear the tune HER FACE LIT UP. She practiced the song all week and can actually play it now. She sings too which is so sweet it makes my heart burst. (In case you’re curious, the first song she chose is “Riptide” — and she also gave me permission to write about our process.)
Raising kids with grit is “I recognize what your goal is and I will believe in you and support you to get there and not let you give up even when you’re down.” This can be very hard- when we humans are at a low point and discouraged we are suffering. When we see our kids suffer we want the suffering to end. Sometimes letting them quit looks like ending the suffering. But that teaches them that we don’t believe they can do it- and they no longer believe in themselves.
Grit is developed over time. Doing hard things (for little ones this can be doing a button or tying shoes!) successfully also gives us a sense of satisfaction. Every time your child does something that is challenging and doesn’t give up she is developing resilience. That resilience will help your child lead a happier and more productive life.
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Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 9, 12, and 15). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah is an API certified parenting educator and is certified by Dr. Laura Markham as an Aha! Peaceful Parenting Coach. Find her at sarahrosensweet.com