A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were talking about how long it takes before we give up learning a new skill. She admitted to giving up once the lessons got a bit more complex – and it was a pattern that was present ever since her childhood. That made me think a little more about the kids I’ve worked and dealt with in recent years. I remember my seven-year-old niece whining to me, “It’s too hard!” while going through her homework one Saturday afternoon. She was ready to give up, but I gently prodded her and broke down the problem into smaller pieces. “Here, let’s try to do this first step, then we’ll see what happens.” She grudgingly obliged, and we eventually worked through the challenge. “That wasn’t too bad, was it?” I asked afterward. She nodded in agreement. A few more weeks of helping her get over minor obstacles got her into the habit of working through them. These days, she tends to power through her schoolwork, only pausing to seek help when she gets stuck. Through positive reinforcement, she was able to develop a grittier outlook.
Studies have shown that the biggest predictor of success is a characteristic called grit: perseverance amidst challenges. The term was coined by Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She used it to describe individuals who have the capacity to push through adversity in pursuing a long-term goal. The funny thing about grit is that people know it when they see it, but unless it’s been put to the test, it lies unnoticed. Grit requires tests to prove its existence.
Though there haven’t been conclusive science-backed evidence that grit can be developed, patterns do emerge when we observe gritty kids. I personally believe that grit is the result of intentional parenting, and a lot of it is formed through positive discipline.
Positive Discipline, a concept made popular by Dr. Jane Nelsen, essentially moves away from extrinsic motivators (rewards and punishments) to intrinsic motivators (finding value and purpose in what one does). What does this mean in terms of developing grit? It means your child does things not just because of what they stand to gain (or lose if they don’t). They do things because they see the bigger picture, an overarching purpose to their hard work. It’s this kind of mindset and focus enables children to face challenges and failures more positively.
What does positive discipline and grit development look like? Here are some guidelines and principles.
- Allow children to discover their capabilities. We want our kids to explore and find things that they enjoy doing, and do them well. Sometimes, though, inconveniences keep kids from trying out a new sport or artistic activity where they can possibly excel. It could be the hot weather, the annoying classmate, or even just the boring appearance of the venue. When seemingly minor things keep your kid from even just trying something, find creative ways to encourage them to explore. Have them watch elite athletes or award-winning musicians to inspire them. Identify and talk about their strengths which might help them excel in the new hobby. Or simply ask them to share what they already know, and make them feel that they’re more proficient than you are in a certain skill - even if it’s just kicking the ball. Small, positive prompts can help your child get over the slump and start to enjoy something they weren’t that interested in originally.
- When your kids do find something they enjoy or love, build purpose and meaning into their practice. This gives them a sense of significance. Communicate to them that what they do matters not just to them, but to other people, too. This doesn’t mean you need to suck the joy out of it by telling them how valuable piano lessons are in their bid to become a concert pianist for the national orchestra. Explore the activity together and find out why they like it. In artistic pursuits, it could be their desire to express themselves. In sports, it could be the nature of healthy competition and teamwork. Ask them why they think it’s important – the key ingredient here is ownership. They need to believe in the intrinsic value of their personal pursuit in order to work hard for it.
- Help your kids set goals for themselves, and figure out how much time and effort they want to invest in reaching those goals. It’s not enough to find something they enjoy and allow them to pursue it. Keeping them focused on and dedicated to their goal by having a growth plan is what builds a sense of responsibility and conscientiousness. When kids have a hand in formulating their own goals, there’s a greater sense of accountability. After all, they’re the ones who said they’ll do it. Your job is to keep track of their progress and to hold them to their commitments. When your kids seem to be losing sight of the big picture, remind them of the long-term goal.
- Teach your kids to embrace failure and challenges as part of the process. Grit requires getting up after you fall. Failure in some form is inevitable, and the sooner your child encounters it, the better it is in his character development. When your child fails, use that as an opportunity to develop a positive outlook about failure. When kids begin to think that failure means it’s the end of the world, they’ll most likely give up instead of move on. But if your child sees that failure is not the end but just a detour or a speed bump, he’ll realize that there’s still something up ahead. Likewise, challenges can be framed as opportunities to be creative, instead of roadblocks that lead to disaster. Don’t be afraid to let your child feel the sting of falling down – instead, help them have a healthy outlook and regain the strength to get back up.
- Celebrate small wins and encourage progress. Part of positive discipline is focusing on the good, and not calling too much attention to the bad. It’s not about sugar-coating reality; instead, you want your child to build confidence and continue on the right track. Praising your child when he achieves something helps reinforce positive behavior, and he or she will most likely continue doing what he or she was doing. When inappropriate behavior occurs, it’s okay to express displeasure but you need to explain why it’s wrong. Reinforce the lesson by talking about a hypothetical scenario, asking what would most likely happen if they did what was right. For instance, when your child skipped practice because they don’t feel like it, redirect their attention to what the day’s practice could have achieved. The next time they show up for practice, give them a thumbs up to let them know they’re on the right track.
- Balance high expectations with the right kind of support. Yes, we want our kids to do well. But many times, we communicate the expectation without providing the tools to help them get there. Supporting your child’s endeavors (like watching their games or recitals) communicates your belief in their capabilities. This doesn’t just give them an ego boost, it also builds trust between you and your child. When your son or daughter knows that you are there to support them, you’re modeling the reliability that you want them to have when they grow up. You should be mindful, though, that there’s a thin line between coddling and supporting – give your children the tools to succeed, but don’t do the work for them. Kids still need to show up for practice and do their homework themselves. A little guidance and encouragement might be needed from time to time, but don’t relieve them of the healthy pressure to excel.
Gritty kids aren’t made overnight. Through time and a lot of positive reinforcement, children can learn to see beyond setbacks and have the drive to achieve purposeful long-term goals. We want to raise responsible and useful members of society, and the best time to do it is when they’re young. Like fine wine, grit only becomes better with time.