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  • Writer's pictureLynn Denton

What is Grit?

Recently I’ve been hearing about “grit.” This term is currently being used in psychology, but let’s talk about it in a more physical way first. Picking up a handful of sand or dirt and saying, “this feels gritty,” connotes something that is not smooth, perhaps rough to the touch, bumpy, and may not feel very good. There is the tendency to rub it in your hand to smooth out the rough spots. If you go to a spa for a facial, the technicians use a mask with grit that scrubs your skin and ultimately leaves it feeling smooth.

Recently in psychology, there have been articles and books on grit. A definition of grit is an individual’s passion to stick with a long-term goal, in spite of obstacles. Synonyms for grit include tenacity and perseverance. The concept of grit has recently been explored by Angela Lee Duckworth, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She has had an impressive career, first in the business world, then as a middle-school teacher in public schools, and now as a psychologist, researcher and author. When she was a teacher, she noticed that IQ and talent were not necessarily a predictor of a student’s success; rather, students who could stick with their task and their goal, even with challenges, performed the best.

Duckworth studied army recruits to see who would make it through basic training, she studied kids who went to the national spelling bee, and executives who rose up to run large corporations. Not surprisingly, she found a relationship between the individuals who succeeded with the amount of passion and perseverance they brought to their long-term goals.

For the past few years, I have used the movie Spellbound to teach elementary school children about perseverance. This is an excellent documentary from 2002 about eight students who won their regional spelling bees and advanced to the National Bee in Washington DC. What’s fascinating about the featured students is the diversity of their backgrounds. A number of them come from very small towns with little-to-no resources; a few have parents who have not finished college. Most of them don’t come from affluent homes with coaches being hired by the dozens to get them to the national bee. These kids had a goal and a talent, and others around them encouraged and supported their journey. They had grit, perseverance, tenacity. Some of them were returning to the national bee after an unsuccessful previous attempt. That is grit.

What is our role as parents in helping our kids develop grit? Well, you can’t have this conversation without talking about failure. Failure and set-backs are not only inevitable in life, but they are what teach us how to brush ourselves off and get back on the horse. Setbacks help us take stock of what got us part way to our goal in the first place, and then show us how to do it again, or differently with more conviction.

It’s fair to say that in this age of parenting philosophy, which includes a tendency to hover and protect our children from hurt and failure, this orientation can get in the way of children developing grit. Why do we work so hard to protect our children from rejection, disappointment, and pain? Why has it evolved in the last 10-15 years that this is the trend? Certainly not all parents hover, but this trend does exist.

My friends, whose children, like mine, are in their early 20’s, often tell stories about their children calling home on a given day with a disappointment, and unloading on them. That’s totally OK. We are here to listen (and sometimes to impart some wisdom.) But then, the parent walks around with this burden and pain of their child’s disappointment, only to talk to the child a few days later and learn that the child got over it way faster than the parent did. We feel our children’s disappointments, sometimes acutely. Is this good for them? Is this good for us?

I read a story recently which was extreme, but packs a punch. It was about a 23-year-old man in his first job after college, in a professional environment. He received a not-so-good performance review. His parent called the boss and berated him for this. The next day, the boss fired the young man and told him that he couldn’t work for this company if he couldn’t stand on his own two feet. Did the parent call the boss without the son’s knowledge? (Probably). Was the parent trying to protect the son? (Of course). But the parent’s disappointment and discomfort led to actions that were not in the best interest of the son. The son needed to learn what he could from the performance review, even if that was hard.

How do we develop grit in our children? If I had the answer, I would be doing book signings as we speak. One thing we can do is tell our children about (small and big) goals we are pursuing and how we are doing it. We need to tell them about the roadblocks we might run into and how we are navigating around them. We can also share some of our disappointments, big or small, and show how we think them through, make a plan, and try again or find a new direction. We can be sad about disappointment, but it doesn’t stop us. We can accept our role in the event, and not blame others.

As parents, we can also (try to) be measured and thoughtful in how we work with our kids when they have disappointments. To process with them slowly, to listen patiently, to NOT jump on the phone and call the teacher or coach. To help them acknowledge their feelings about what happened and make a plan to try to overcome it, but to let them know that even a new plan is not a guarantee. In a few days, they will feel a little better and we will too. To call our friends if we need to vent our frustration, go for a walk or run, or whatever healthy coping strategies are effective.

So this summer, pick up that handful of dirt and feel the grit. And remember that we can all work together to smooth out the bumps.

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