The other day, my 4-year-old demonstrated to me that he’s got grit. True grit. See, we took him to The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and headed straight to the train works — his favorite thing. As an old woman leaned on a cane and told us about how the train was made, elementary and middle school students tore through the engine’s compartment, running around with no regard to her or the historic environment. My 4-year-old son, however, stood patiently and listened as the woman droned on — and I say drone because, really, she wasn’t the liveliest of speakers, and I tuned out half of her speech.
This speaks nothing to his inherent intelligence. We’ve taken him to the Natural History Museum in New York, and The Prospect Park Zoo, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and he’s been just as ill behaved as those other kids, for sure. But if you find him the right subject — trains, or hands-on science — he has the grit and gumption to learn a lot about them, even in the face of distractions and less-than-perfect conditions. These are his passions.
A lot of focus is being paid right now in American schools on the concept of grit. A recent report on NPR talked about how curriculums are being developed to help encourage students to develop grit — persistence — in order to achieve in the face of challenges. As Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who coined the term “grit” in this context, said on NPR: “The quality of being able to sustain your passions, and also work really hard at them, over really disappointingly long periods of time, that’s grit.”
The thinking goes like this: kids who believe that they are naturally smart will avoid challenges so as not to look like a loser when they fail, while kids who believe that success comes from effort are less afraid to take risks, and in the end perform better on assessments and in life. So when you praise your children for being so smart, you may actually be harming their ability to do well in the high-stakes environment of school (or the field of sports, or performance on stage, or wherever your child perceives to be a fraught situation). Grit, it is believed, may be a better predictor of success than IQ. Which makes sense, really. As Malcolm Gladwell has postulated, it takes around 10,000 hours for a person to achieve mastery in a particular subject. Getting those hours under your belt requires an intense passion and love for the work.
What can you do to encourage grit in your child at home?
- When you ask a question, give your child time to answer, even if your child is squirming and seems impatient. Silence is ok — we need silence to think. Instead of jumping in and prompting your kid with hints, let them work out the question on their own for a while.
- The brain works like a muscle, it can be exercised. Give your child plenty of books, puzzles, and games that challenge their abilities. You might have heard ads for programs that help you build brain power, and there is some science to this.
- Remember, frustration is a part of learning. Coach your child to push through those feelings, and to return to tasks and problems that are giving them trouble. Tell them, “Don’t give up!” And let them know you’ve noticed when they keep at it.
- Saying “I don’t know” is a sign you actually do know something — your limits. If you don’t know the answer to something, focus on how you can figure it out. Is there a book you can consult? An experiment you can conduct? A video you can watch?
- Focus praise on the process and not the product, or, to put it another way, the effort and not being smart. Use phrases such as, “I like how you used logic to figure out the solution to that problem,” or, “I’m impressed that you took your time and worked so carefully to solve that.”
- Don’t embarrass a child for taking a risk or making a mistake. If your child chimes in with an outlandish idea, it’s ok to tell them that they’re wrong, but you can say things such as, “I like how you’re using your imagination,” or “You’re thinking hard about this, and I like that.” Don’t say things that might make your child scared of thinking for her or himself.
- Cultivate your child’s passion. If your child likes something, then encourage them to go deep, even if that passion doesn’t strike you as an academic one. The feeling of working through frustration in athletics can translate to working through frustration in the classroom. It’s important to have the experience of feeling mastery in a certain area so that then you know when you are not at that level in other areas.
What I like about all this talk of grit is that it answers that age old question of “Why am I learning this?” I hardly ever use long division in my life, but I frequently think about how I struggled to master long division whenever I’m struggling with writing an essay, or figuring out how to explain something complicated to my 4-year-old. Education isn’t just about what you know, it’s about how you know it. In fact, learning how to learn might be the most important lesson of all.