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Winifred Lender: How to Raise Gritty Children

When asked to identify what makes a successful adult, many of us tend to cite intelligence and talent as key factors.

Much research over the past century has examined the predictive validity of these constructs as related to success, which is often measured by educational achievement and income.

While intelligence and talent are linked with success, a noncognitive motivational factor called grit is proving to be a very powerful in predicting success. In fact, grit has been shown to be predictive of success in a variety of academic, business and military settings.

Grit is a noncognitive trait that is defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” It is the “stick-to-it-ness,” “drive” or consistency of effort and passion we see in people whereby they continue to pursue their goals, even in the face of challenges.

Grit is what propels people to continue with their goals and work, while their less grittier peers give up or change focus.

The two integral components of grit are perseverance of effort and consistency of focus. Thus, the musician who perseveres at studying violin and remains focused on this one instrument over time is grittier than the musician who samples various different instruments, even if she perseveres for short periods of time with a specific instrument.

Angela Duckworth and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania developed the concept of girt after studying many highly successful people in an array of fields. They developed a simple self-report Grit Scale for children and adults.

This measure can predict which West Point cadets will make it through the first summer of rigorous training at the U.S. Military Academy, which sales trainees will earn the most money, and which National Spelling Bee finalists will advance to the final round.

Grit was also found to be predictive of grades from elementary school to college. In fact, Duckworth found that grit was more predictive of grade-point average at an elite college than SAT scores.

Consistently, it was grit, not IQ or talent that was the most predictive factor in determining success within these varied samples.

The new grit research may make us rethink this traditional focus on racing to increase children’s cognitive skills and pushing them to excel at a host of athletic and other endeavors as they look for their true talent. Perhaps encouraging perseverance, goal setting, focus and concentration are more important.

It may be helpful, as Duckworth suggests, to consider child rearing and life in general not as a sprint, in which we rush to expose children to an array of activities, but rather a marathon, in which we support them in narrowing their focus in a few areas and maintaining that focus over time.

Specific strategies for encouraging grit in children are detailed below:

Practice Authoritative Parenting

Authoritative parenting, characterized by parents who exert control but also provide nurturance and flexibility, correlates with children who are higher on the Grit Scale. Those with authoritarian parenting styles, characterized by rigid rules and harsh punishment, tend to have children who score lower on Grit Scale.

Praise Effort, Not Outcome

In order to reinforce the “stick-to-it-ness” essential for grit praise your child’s efforts, such as their hours spent studying, focus and dedication, instead of the outcome (i.e., the grade they receive or the test score).

Normalize Frustration and Failure

Children need to learn to work through frustration to achieve the perseverance of effort and consistency of interest inherent in grit. Responding in a way that is non-emotionally and normalizes frustration and failure, as part of development is essential.

Support a Growth Mindset

Children who learn that ability is not static but changing are more likely to persist at tasks. Carol Dweck’s and colleagues research on growth mindset shows that teaching children that ability is fluid is essential to encouraging persistence over time.

Encourage a Passion, But Realize It Is Not Essential for Grit

It is easier to persist when we enjoy what we’re doing, but we can learn to persist even when we don’t enjoy something. Often times, when you think back to your grittiest experiences, they involved persisting at tasks you did not enjoy.

Reinforce Long-Term Commitment with Tangible Reinforcers

To encourage children to persist over the long term, it may be necessary to use reinforcers. Instead of buying the new tennis outfit or the new soccer shirt when a child decides to start with a class, use these as reinforcers once they complete half a session, and consider small inducers as they progress, until they internalize the reinforcement.

Model Grit

Use examples from your everyday life and your past experience to model and reinforce how you show grit.

Know When to Quit and When to Persist

As a parent, you need to teach your child that there are times to quit. You know your child and should encourage them to quit if a situation is unhealthy for them, regardless of what commitment they have made.

— Winifred Lender, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at [email protected]. She is the author of A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced and Connected Children and Teens available at Chaucer’s and Amazon. Dr. Lender completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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