Let’s get Gritty: How to cultivate grit in your child 

Lucy Davidov, Paige Corman, and Alissa Ellis, PhD*

Parents obviously want their children to thrive and be successful.  What happens though when a child experiences failure or frustration?  Could your response as a parent to this frustration actually be hindering your child’s longer term ability to be successful?  We never hear parents yell at a sports game, “Nice missed shot!” or “Great dropped ball!”  We don’t generally give children positive attention or accolades for failure or struggle.  But, the question remains: should we be? Struggle, and sometimes failure, are critical for overall success.  Struggling with a difficult task doesn’t mean that a child doesn’t possess the innate ability to complete it; it just highlights how mistakes (and sometimes even negative emotions) are a necessary part of the learning process.1  Learning the value of practice and struggle is one of the driving forces behind the development of grit, and it’s something that parents can actively work to cultivate in their children.1 

What is grit and why do we want to cultivate it in our children? Grit is a “passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future day in and day out.”2  Sounds exhausting, right?  Yes, but it’s what sets students, cadets at Westpoint, and potential employees apart from the rest in terms of positive outcomes.3   Grit is related to traits such as self-discipline, conscientiousness and perseverance.4  It’s the opposite of giving-up or quitting, and has been shown to be a predictive trait associated with better results in school, career, and life.5  Sounds like something we would want to see in our children (and ourselves), eh?  Below, we outline some of the most practical and effective ways to build and encourage grit in your child.6  

  1. Maintain a growth mindset.  In a growth mindset, abilities can be developed, improved upon, and mastered through hard-work and dedication.7  It is a building block for grit and essential for accomplishments.  Students with growth mindsets perform better in math and English than students with fixed mindsets with the association being even stronger for students struggling the most in school!8 Focus your attention toward your child on the learning and development of specific skills, rather than on the overall outcomes.  Remind your child that the brain is like a muscle and it gets stronger the more you work on it!  Help them recall times when they’ve seen a change in their abilities or worked hard to accomplish something, to help them identify concrete examples of what the growth mindset looks like.9 Making it specific and relevant to your child will help them to understand how to apply it in their own lives. 
  1. Teach the value of practice.   Having difficulty with something, struggling, and becoming frustrated does not mean you can’t do it.  It only means that it requires more practice.  Like learning any new thing–a skill, a sport, an instrument, a language–you do not come out of the gate successful.  Remind your child that no one has mastered a task on the first try.  The greatest athletes, academics, and artists, for example, perfect their crafts through practice.  To create harder working children who become hard working adults, remind them frequently that getting better is associated with working harder.3  Without working through a difficult task, children are void of the experience of seeing themselves improve.10  If your child is naturally good at something or a skill comes more easily, challenge them to try something new or master harder concepts.  Children for whom mastery comes more easily may miss out on opportunities to develop grit and perseverance through practice.
  1. Do not praise intelligence. Praise the Process. Try to not praise your child’s intelligence or innate skills (e.g., “you’re so smart!;” “you’re so athletic,” “you’re so gifted”).  It is not that these statements are untrue, but they can undermine the development of grit.  Children (and adults!)  LOVE receiving praise, but the boost gotten from this praise may last only for a moment and can affect future motivation.  Children may be more likely to equate this praise of their innate abilities to statements like “if success means they are smart, failure means they are dumb.”6  Building grit involves unlinking the outcome from the positive reinforcement and instead, reinforcing the process of trying, working hard, and practicing. If praise can focus on skill development through hard work and practice rather than on the end product, children will be encouraged to work harder throughout the process, not merely focus on overall success at the end.9 
  1. Do not let your children quit.  Let’s admit it.  No one likes to see their child in distress.  Removing the distressing stimulus would feel like a relief to the child and to you!  Unfortunately, never giving your child the opportunity to persist through distress hinders the ability to improve distress tolerance.   Distress tolerance is the concept of continuing to move forward toward a goal, despite it being uncomfortable.  Often, parents will say: “I just want my child to be happy,” as they allow their child to quit the soccer team because they aren’t getting enough playing time.  Or, they “want them to find their passion,” and allow them to quit piano lessons after 3 sessions.  Helping your child to explore their interests and try new adventures is okay.  However, these should happen after the initial commitment has been fulfilled.  Learning discipline through commitment can improve distress tolerance.  Prior to beginning something new, have an explicit conversation with your child about your expectations.  For example: “We will try soccer for this season and only make changes once the season is over.”  Or, “I would like you to take 12 piano lessons and then we can evaluate whether it’s right for you.”  
  1. Do not be scared of negative emotions.   As mentioned above, tolerating negative emotions is a muscle that needs exercising in both you and your teen.  Trying to avoid negative emotions only weakens this skill to the point of atrophy.  Resilience is built through the process of tolerating and overcoming these negative moments.  Without them, there is nothing to use to practice this skill.   Parents will often jump in to rescue their struggling children because they, themselves, are having trouble coping with watching the struggle.  Pay attention to whether this is you and remind yourself that practice and struggle are beneficial.  
  1. Model and encourage long-term goals.  Set long term goals for yourself. Consistency over long periods matters as much or more than intensity over short periods.11 Goals help to align your everyday choices with your longer term plans. 
  1. Be supportive, but firm.  Parents have many ways of interacting with their children, but the most successful parents are supportive and nurturing, but they also set firm limits on behaviors through the use of rules, and they use explanations of the behavior they would like to see.  With that in mind, keep your interactions positive and supportive, as this can influence the outcome more than the strategies themselves,12 but also create clear expectations and boundaries, as these are more likely to result in children who are independent and able to set goals and work toward them.11  

*Lucy Davidov, a senior at the University of Virginia, and Paige Corman, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, are planning to pursue doctoral degrees in clinical psychology.  They currently work as thinkSMART®@home coaches, under the direction of Dr. Ellis.

Works Cited

  1. Perkins-Gough, Deborah. (2013). The significance of grit: A conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 14-20. 
  2. 2. Duckworth, A. (2013, April). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance
  3. Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1087
  4. Duckworth, Angela L., Weir, David, Tsukayama, Eli and Kwok, David. (2012). Who does well in life? Conscientious adults excel in both objective and subjective success. Fron- tiers in Psychology. 3(356), 1-8. 
  5. Duckworth, Angela Lee and Seligman, Martin. (2005). Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Per- formance of Adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(12), 939-944.
  6. Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House Publishing, New York: New York. 2006.
  7. Dweck, C. (2014, November). The power of believing that you can improve [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve.
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