As a parent, you’ve probably heard a lot of terms and concepts you’re told will help you understand how to support your child’s development: qualities like resilience and stick-to-itiveness and skills associated with mindfulness, self-management and executive control. There’s a lot of debate—but not a lot of clarity—on the extent to which these qualities and abilities are innate versus learned and if learned, whether and how they should be taught.
The term “grit” has received lots of attention lately. Defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” the concept has been compared to conscientiousness, industriousness, self-control, pluck and fortitude. Grit is said to be a stable trait that doesn’t require immediate positive feedback.
Moreover, it’s not necessarily dependent on intelligence. According to Angela Duckworth, a former teacher, researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and “mother” of the grit movement, people who have grit are not necessarily the smartest or most talented in the bunch. They succeed (when they do) because they continue to work toward and focus on their goal, not because they’re especially good at it—at least not at first. They don’t strive because they’re receiving external rewards, she contends, but simply because they love doing what they do.
But whether grit is something we should be looking to our children or even ourselves to have is a much more complex question. For starters, Duckworth’s research doesn’t point as cleanly to specific conclusions as you might think, given the popularity and support of her ideas.
Duckworth assessed West Point cadets trying to endure the physical and mental strains of their “plebe” summer for grit, tying their attitudinal statements (such as “I never give up”) to whether they dropped out. But there could be other reasons for dropping out of such a physically or mentally challenging ordeal. For instance, perhaps these cadets decided the program was, after all, not for them, which could be considered a brave and adaptive decision.
Beyond that, Duckworth’s methodology is criticized for choosing such rarified groups to study. You can presume that anyone who makes it into West Point (or a National Spelling Bee, another group she researched) is already fairly gritty. So what is really being measured when we compare “winners” and “losers” within these groups? Moreover, since both settings are specifically designed to winnow people out, it hardly seems helpful to use them as a baseline to understand grit in situations where a person’s effort is neither encouraged nor discouraged, but is led by the person’s own passion and interest.
Besides, most of us have more mundane pursuits. Our kids may simply be striving to get an “A” in math, make the football team or learn to play the guitar.
Gritty or not, there are practices your child can adopt that may help him or her work through challenges. Here are a few:
- Set clear goals
- Practice the art of “shaking off” setbacks
- Seek help, when needed
- Be open to new approaches
Sticking with goals is important. But if your child has employed these practices and is still struggling to achieve a specific goal, it may be time to ask how worthwhile that goal remains, or whether it should be framed differently.
Even Duckworth acknowledges that quitting sometimes makes sense. In a column she wrote for the PBS News Hour last year, she explains that some goals are subordinate to others and that what she termed “lower-level” or lower priority goals may be okay to abandon.
“If you’ve been trying and trying to accomplish a low-level goal, but despite your best efforts, you are making absolutely no headway, quit. Your energy will be better spent on a different low-level goal that accomplishes the same end,” she writes. Put another way, if your child focuses on his or her highest goal (such as becoming a top-notch musician), he or she can be less concerned that one particular concert or class didn’t go well or that he or she wasn’t accepted into a particular program. There are other paths forward.
Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School is even more blunt. In a recent post for Quartz, she writes, “We should be gritty, yes, but not stupid. The most agile and adaptive response to an unattainable goal is goal adjustment, which entails both disengaging from the unattainable goal and then re-engaging in an alternative.”
Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom.