Why Grit Matters and How to Infuse it in Your Kids

by Sanya Pelini March 28, 2017

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Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time. ~ Thomas A. Edison
Why can some kids concentrate on a task until it gets done and others have to be constantly nagged to take the smallest of steps? Why is it that one kid will get frustrated and give up when the going gets tough and another will be driven by the same challenge? Why can an intelligent kid fail to accomplish the simplest of things? These questions have garnered much interest over the years. In the 1800s, Henry Galton undertook a study in which he sought to examine whether the success of achievers (scientists, musicians, judges, painters, etc) depended on their ability or was inborn. He found that success was determined by, “ability combined with zeal and with capacity for hard labor”. (A free copy of his book is available here). Ever since, other researchers have explored this issue and come to the same conclusion: stick-to-it-tiveness (grit, persistence) is a greater determinant of success than ability or intelligence. Stick-to-it-tiveness is the ability to keep going despite the greatest obstacles. It is the ability to keep dusting yourself off and trying, over and over again. Stick-to-it-tiveness means being able to keep one’s eye on the long-term goal. These studies have highlighted important facts:
  • The best performers are not necessarily the most talented. Bloom, for instance, found that high achievers have a strong interest in their field, a strong desire to achieve and are willing to put in the necessary time and effort.
  • That perseverance is one of the greatest determinants of success. This has been confirmed by Caroline Dweck, a psychology researcher at Stanford, whose studies have revealed that perseverance determines children’s intellectual growth.
There is much evidence to suggest that stick-to-it-tiveness can be developed. Indeed, encouraging certain behavior may increase a child’s ability to focus on long-term goals.

Developing Stick-to-it-tiveness In Children

1 | Make it worthwhile

For stick-to-it-tiveness to work, your child must consider the task to be accomplished or the skills to develop as worthwhile. Vroom’s expectancy theory of motivation suggests that individuals are more likely to stick to long-term objectives if they believe that their efforts and performance are worthwhile.
What you can do:
Explain to your child why achieving a particular objective is important. Meaningful activities are those where your child can see a clear link between his/her efforts and expected outcomes. Attractive outcomes can take multiple forms, and they can differ from one child to another - gifts, compliments, approval, having more friends, pride, encouragement, etc.

2 | Feed your child’s need for autonomy

There is evidence to suggest that encouraging your child to participate in decision-making feeds his/her need for autonomy and makes it easier for him/her to cooperate and invest in the future. The more a child believes that he/she has played an active role in the decision-making process, the more likely he/she is to be motivated towards achieving a specific goal.
What you can do:
Make it a habit of asking for your child's point of view.
  • What do you think?
  • What do you think will work?
  • How else can we try this?
  • Brainstorm. Help him/her learn to analyze every problem from multiple viewpoints.
A child’s need for autonomy can be fed from the youngest age by using structured decision-making. Structured decision-making means encouraging your child to make decisions within a specific structure. For example, instead of asking younger children “what would you like for dinner?” you could ask, “would you like pasta or rice for dinner?”

3 | Give your child the tools to succeed

Much evidence suggests that children will give up when they believe they lack the competence or skills to succeed. For instance, Bandura’s self-efficacy theory has shown that children are more likely to repeat behavior that leads to success, and give up if they repeatedly meet with failure. The Endowed Progress Effect, which you can read about here, also posits that encountering initial progress encourages continued effort towards a specific goal.
What you can do:
The first step if you want your child to succeed is to set high but realistic goals. The second step is to help your child view him/herself as a competent and successful human being. One study found that children were rarely aware of how their parents defined success. The researchers argue that parents should clearly define what they mean by success and model the skills they believe will help their children attain success.

4 | Help your child develop an optimistic explanatory style

According to Seligman, explanatory styles are the patterns of how people explain things to themselves and to others: “An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness”. An optimistic explanatory style views obstacles as temporary. The theory of explanatory styles is quite similar to the theory behind Caroline Dweck’s “growth mindset”. According to Dweck, a growth mindset refers to the belief that intelligence and talent can be developed with effort.
What you can do:
Developing your child’s optimistic explanatory style (or growth mindset) means teaching him/her to explore the root of the problem and come up with solutions. It means helping your child understand that intelligence is not “fixed” and that he/she can control the outcomes. If your child thinks that he/she is no good at tennis, explain to him/her why practicing 10 minutes every day will help. Once the root of the problem is identified, help your child brainstorm solutions. Work on your own explanatory style. We often fail to realize just how much our children observe and learn from us. Do you use an optimistic explanatory style? Do you tell your children positive and optimistic stories? The world is full of heroes. Celebrate those heroes with your child!
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” ~ Helen Keller
Be patient. Teaching a child persistence takes time and much effort. Be patient and stick-to-it!

Sanya Pelini


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