David Lose: Parenting: On Grit


Somewhere along the way, most of us bought into the notion that ability is central to success. You know what I mean, "he's a natural musician," or "she was born an athlete."

More recently, that assumption has been challenged on numerous grounds. Far more important than ability, it turns out, is hard work. Practice, as they say, makes perfect, and practice means lots and lots of hard work.

But it's not just hard work in general, either. That is, it's not just doing the same thing over and over but doggedly working to get better, surmounting setbacks that come our way, persevering when the road forward is neither obvious nor easy.

The word often used to describe this kind of dogged determinim in the face of adversity is "grit." Recent research suggests that it is one of the most important factors in predicting someone's success. In his influential and very helpful book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character , Paul Tough deploys a great deal of such research to make the case that children not only need to develop grit, but that they do so best by facing and overcoming challenges.

All of which means that parents who want to raise successful children need to make sure those children struggle. They can support them in addressing challenges, but not remove them. They can encourage their children to persevere, but shouldn't rescue them. They can listen to them discuss their problems, but not solve them for them.

And that can be hard, hard, hard to do. Most of us, having had our own share of character-building challenges, tend to overlook the grit it engendered in us and instead remember only the uncomfortableness or pain we experienced, and so we want, sometimes desperately, always understandably, to spare our children similar experiences. But in doing so we often shortchange our kids unintentionally. We rob them, that is, of the opportunity to develop grit through perseverance and in this way develop character.

One of the scientists Tough regularly draws on in his work is the math-teacher-turned-psychologist Angela Duckworth. Duckworth, the recipient of the one of the 2013 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grants, discovered in her graduate school research that hard work and determination were far better predictors of academic success than IQ, and that there are no short-cuts to developing those traits. Since then, she has been particularly interested in creating learning environments - schools, homes, and other organizations - where everyone, and particularly the disadvantaged, are invited to live not just up to but also beyond the potential they and others believed them to have. And the only way children can do that is to struggle, to learn to work hard, to stay with something challenging until they have mastered it.

Christians know something of this, although when it comes to parenting we often forget it. Consider the Apostle Paul's provocative and revealing statement in his letter to his most difficulty congregation, the folks gathered in Christ's name in Corinth:

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:7b-10).

This is grit. And among other things Angela Duckworth has accomplished, one of the more interesting is that she has  come up with a way of measuring grit, not in order to set an absolute limit on a trait that she believes can be learned and stretched, but rather to offer a way to assess where one currently is toward the goal of developing greater self-discipline. If interested, you can find her - and take - her Grit Scale here (registration is required, but is free).

In the following video, Dr. Duckworth shares some of the intellectual trek she has made and names the heart of her work. As you listen, think about how you can support the young people in your life to cultivate habits of self-discipline, hard work, and grit. And maybe even considering developing it in yourself!

Note: My thanks to Maria Popova and Brainpickings, where I came across this video.

Taken with permission from David's blog, "...In the Meantime"