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This Holiday Season, Give the Gift of Grit

How to help your child overcome obstacles and be more successful at everything they do

· Behavior Modeling

In her book, Grit: The power of Passion and Perseverance, Dr. Angela Duckworth defines grit as the intersection of passion and perseverance.

Passion is tied to a purposeful goal.

Perseverance is to overcome an obstacle.

The take away from Duckworth’s research is that grit is the primary predictor of success. In fact in one study Duckworth determined that despite our reliance on intelligence tests as indicators of success, students with higher IQ scores actually had less grit, and it was their “less smart” peers who, despite lower IQ scores, worked harder and used a greater amount of determination in order to gain higher GPA’s.

I became keenly aware of the power of grit as I pondered the careers of major league baseball players during the 2017 World Series. Watching the World Series I reflected on the grim statistics standing in juxtaposition to the nightly determination and enthusiasm with which the players took the field.

Imagine, here you are, a Major League baseball player. You have made it to a level of achievement most players can only dream of. You have made it to the top. You are the definition of success. Yet, despite this, you are ranked, profiled and criticised for your performance each and every game you play. To top it off, the best hitters in major league baseball only hit the ball an average of 30% of their times at bat. (Think about the way you cringe when your kid spends hours preparing for their math test only to bring home a 30%). Yet for Major League baseball players, this is their daily reality - no matter how good they are, they fail 70% of the time and often, despite their performance, they are considered expendable.

Take Justin Turner for instance, an undeniable asset to the 2017 LA Dodgers place in the World Series finals, who, in 2013 despite a season where he batted .280 and played four infield positions, was cut from the New York Mets. Following this setback he did what anyone who has made it to the major leagues would do - he worked harder. He spent the offseason learning a new swing, practicing and perfecting it to the finest detail, and each day worked harder and harder to develop his skill. Two months later he landed a seat on the Dodgers roster and the rest is history. Dig deeper into the major leagues and you can find player after player that despite enormous setbacks on and off the field returns to the game day after day, pushing through the adversity of the grim statistics they face. Simply, they just do the work. They try hard and get better. They use their passion to overcome obstacles and reach goals. They don’t just have a talent and they don’t have a team of people telling them they are wonderful. In fact, many have a long line of people in their history telling them they will never make it; but what they do have is determination to overcome obstacles and passion for a purposeful goal. In other words, they have grit.

Identifying grit in other people is one thing, figuring out how they developed it is another. Let’s break down how someone develops grit.

According to Duckworth it is a combination of nature (genetics) and nurture (environment). Most importantly, it is the relationship she draws between talent, grit and achievement that outlines an essential formula for approaching school, sports,

Talent + Effort = Skill


Skill + Effort = Achievement

Talent is the genetic part whether it’s fast-twitch (sprinting) or slow-twitch (endurance) muscle fibers, or perfect pitch (music) versus exceptional memory.

Effort is the nurture part. The never say die approach people have to a problem, typically learned from parents, teachers, etc.

Skill is that combination of talent (good at sprinting) with effort (running every day for ten years). Of course, the deception is that we see the results and they look like talent because we never saw the effort.

And so the achievement deceives us into thinking something is “easy” or someone is “lucky” when in fact there is so much more to the story. In one interesting study, it was found that students who were good at math spent 10 times more time trying to figure out problems than other students who were not good at math… Let’s think about that for a second, the people who are good take 10 times longer to solve a problem? That seems backwards. Shouldn’t the talented math students be FASTER not slower?

We think so but in fact it’s logical that everyone starts with the same basic math ability. The ones that spend “extra” time on hard problems get a little better. People see that and praise them for being “good at math”. They respond by working harder at math, spending even longer solving even harder problems. Now they are on the path to mathematical achievement.

What’s critical to understand is that this distinction is essential in your daily communications with your children. We don’t need to wait for a child to “achieve” something to praise them. In fact, we want to praise them for trying, and in particular for trying things that are hard.

Rewinding to last month in discussing process over product and the development of a growth mindset, it is a focus on the combination of a child’s skill (which may very well be derived from talent, but may not) and the effort they put in to develop that skill that leads to achievement. Achievement, therefore is not a given. We are not entitled to success.

Let’s read that one more time.


We are not entitled to success.​

If we are not entitled to success, then we must work for it. Despite our intelligence quotient (IQ), despite our natural propensity for gross motor skills (athletics), having a musical ear, reading at the age of one, running faster than all of our classmates, winning every art award given at our school, having perfect pitch; despite all of our talents, if we end the praise at intelligence and talent we have grossly undersold the opportunity our children have to succeed. Praising intelligence and talent alone teach the wrong message: because you were born, because you simply are who you are, you will succeed.

What then, will your child do when they begin to recognize, typically sometime in late elementary school through middle school, that Johnny, who didn’t read until he was 10 just out studied them on the history exam and now has the highest grade in the class? What skills will your child have to persevere when just showing up to swim practice is no longer enough to win races because Suzanne practices her strokes long after the team has left the pool and puts in an extra practice on Sundays. What will they do to find success when they begin to realize they have no blueprint for the work success takes? How will they find success if they have never been taught how to earn it?

The truth - they won’t.

Children who are overpraised for talent, or for simply showing up, have lower self esteem and are at higher risk for developing mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression as they develop into adolescents.

Praise for success does not make kids work harder, but it does make them develop inaccurate self identities that are easily shattered by failures and setbacks as they grow older. Praise for the process of striving for success is the better approach.

On the other hand, earned praise, or praise for effort and hard work, allows children to develop a sense of pride in overcoming a challenge, failing and trying again using their own tools to solve a problem. In doing so they create a healthier self identify and secure self esteem. In other words, praising their struggle to achieve helps them develop grit.

For example, instead of praising a child for playing the piano well praise them instead for practicing diligently. Instead of praising a child for getting an A on a test, praise them for studying well for the test.

Developing grit for your child involves setting appropriate challenges while providing emotional support along the way. Additionally, it involves immersing her child in a culture of grit.

  • Provide opportunities to deliberately teach that effort leads to rewards

  • Involve children in activities outside of school with a commitment of at least two years

  • Encourage everyone in your family to make a practice of doing ‘one hard thing’ of their choice (e.g., studying a foreign language, learning a craft, etc.)

  • Allow quitting, however, require that the end of a commitment happen at a natural ending point (end of season, end of camp, end of a semester, etc)

  • Continue to foster a growth mindset by using deliberate verbiage during moments of praise and acknowledgement (“You’ve put in amazing effort”; “You gave it your all but it still didn’t work, lets see that you can fix for next time”; “This is hard for you right now, but with some practice it will become easier”; “I know you can do this activity”)

This process isn’t easy in our culture where results are prized more than process, where everyone successful is deemed “talented” rather than “hard working”. So work on your grit by combining your talent for parenting with effort to create skill. Then combine that skill with more effort to showcase grit for your child as you struggle, fail, struggle some more, and eventually realize you’re really good at this parenting thing. And remember, if you were a pro baseball player you’d be failing 70% of the time!

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