Raising a kid with grit

Grit can be defined in a couple ways: 1) small, loose particles of stone or sand. 2) courage and resolve; strength of character.

When we’re talking about raising children, pieces of dirt and sand are part of the package.

But raising a child with courage, resolve and strength of character? That takes a little more effort and support on our part.

Well-known psychologist Angela Duckworth’s theory is that personality traits, such as resilience, initiative, self-control, motivation and perseverance (a.k.a. grit) matter more than intelligence, skill or grades when predicting achievement and success.

Grit is a hot topic in education — as is the idea of a growth mindset, made famous by psychologist Carol Dweck, a Stanford University professor who argues that the ability to learn is not fixed, but can change (grow) with one’s effort.

Scientists believe that the brain can change and grow in response to challenges and changes (a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity), and not just throughout childhood where the effect is quite pronounced, but throughout life.

Dweck’s research (tinyurl.com/growth-mn) has shown that students’ beliefs about their ability to improve can lead to actual improvement in motivation as well as performance. It’s partly why parents today are discouraged from saying: “You’re smart,” to students who excel, but rather, “Wow, you must have worked hard on that.”

With this understanding, educators (like me) are working to research, share and implement these ideas in our schools to help students develop these traits not only for their success in academics, but also in life.

However, educators can do only so much. Parents have the most powerful influence in a child’s life. 

Think about these ideas to help your school-age child start learning and understanding these empowering concepts to boost his or her self-esteem, motivation and work ethic, both in and out of the classroom.

Helping, not rescuing

Let your child solve small problems. 

This can be hard to do, but problem solving can be a powerful learning experience for children. 

Here’s an example: One day last week, my 8-year-old son forgot his folder at school. When he got home he became very frustrated and upset because he knew he had some homework to do. Instead of driving back to school to get his folder, we talked through it. We talked about how we all forget things sometimes and it can be very frustrating when we forget important things. 

I reminded him (from my teacher-mama perspective) that this wasn’t the first time a child had forgotten his homework at school. 

Together we brainstormed some ideas to work through this experience. With my urging and support, he came up with the solution talk to his teacher right away in the morning and to try to find a time during the day (like snack time or recess) to complete the assignment so he could hand it in on time. 

He understood he might have to face consequences for not turning his homework first thing in the morning. But thanks to our conversation, he had a sense of resolve and at least a short-term plan. 

Working toward a goal

Emphasize the value of practice and hard work. 

Researchers have concluded that praising and recognizing the effort toward a goal is more productive than praising the end result. 

I’ve experimented with these ideas with my son, who has a very strong interest in sports. 

At a recent high school basketball game, I noticed he was in awe of the varsity players, so I encouraged him to contemplate how many years of practice the players must have had and how hard they must have worked to develop their skills. 

We’ve also had conversations about how those varsity players had probably started out in elementary basketball just like him. We talked about how — if he commits to practice during his elementary and high school years — he, too, could develop the skills to be a varsity player someday. 

The 'NYET' response

Encouraging kids to “stick to it,” even if they experience some struggle, is one way to help them develop grit. 

For example, if a child is losing interest or motivation in a sport because the other kids are “better,” the answer isn’t to let the child quit the sport. 

Under a growth mindset, children should try to stay committed at least through a single season or the set duration of the activity so they can, ideally, work through their struggles and develop an understanding that hard work and practice are what cultivate skill (not innate talent).

Dweck recommends that children who say: “I can’t do it,” be encouraged to say instead: “I can’t do it — yet,” or “NYET,” short for “not yet.” (You can learn about NYET and the growth mindset at tinyurl.com/carol-dweck-nyet.)

With support and encouragement, hopefully our kids will develop some grit to help them be successful both at school and in life.


Megan Devine is an elementary school teacher who lives in Northeastern Minnesota. Follow her on Instagram @megtdevine. Write her at mdevine@mnparent.com.