Grit: Is My Daughter Going to Have It?

What is grit? It is usually defined by researchers as the quality that enables individuals to work hard and stick to their long-term passions and goals. Is my daughter going to have grit? Does grit develop through adversity?

I grew up a product of New York City of the 1970's. NYC was bankrupt then and crime-ridden and straight up dirty.

I grew up a product of the projects. Washington Houses for life. Urine socked elevators. Cockroach infested apartments. The rise of crack, which grasped parents of some of my schoolmates. Stairways that could not be traveled at certain times of night. You needed to be home early to be safe. 

I grew up and remain a black man, which comes with its predetermined struggles and some that are unique to me.

I grew up a product of a single parent household, which I continue to hear from some voices is a problem.

But what of my daughter? There are numerous studies and lots of conversations at schools across the country about the significance of grit.

I faced and overcame lots of adversity through the years. At no point did I make excuses. At no point did I ask for sympathy. What I have done is not let any of that adversity break me. It has strengthened me. It is a part of me, but does not define me. I have been lucky to have a great deal of successes in life from my education to career to marriage and parenthood. Will my daughter face adversity early enough to build her resolve, give her grit? She won't have the public school experience I did. She does not have to fear the building she lives in like I did. She receives a lot of gifts on birthdays and holidays. 

How do I show my daughter my strength without making things look too easy?

Perhaps this resolve will come from sports. I see her show so much determination in her gymnastics class. It is not easy for her. She falls. She fails. But, she gets up and tries again. Perhaps this resolve will come from her school work or her experience as a person of color.

I recently read an article entitled, The Significance of Grit: A Conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth by Deborah Perkins-Gough. When the work of Carol Dweck was mentioned, I was especially excited. Here is an excerpt.

Your research on grit seems to be related to Carol Dweck's work on a growth mind-set. She has studied the benefits of teaching kids that intelligence is not fixed, but is something that they can grow. Do you think the same is true of grit? And should we help young people see that they can develop grit, that it's not just something you're born with?

Carol Dweck, more than anyone else, is a role model for me. We're collaborating with her on a couple of projects. One thing we've found is that children who have more of a growth mind-set tend to be grittier. The correlation isn't perfect, but this suggests to me that one of the things that makes you gritty is having a growth mind-set. The attitude "I can get better if I try harder" should help make you a tenacious, determined, hard-working person.

In theory, the work that Carol has done to show that you can change your mind-set would also be relevant to changing your grit. We're developing an intervention, inspired by her work, to look at making students aware of the value of deliberate practice, the kind of effortful practice that really improves skills. In Carol's work, she shows kids scientific evidence of brain plasticity—the fact that peoples' brains change with experience. Although at first they might respond to frustration and failure by thinking, "I should just give up; I can't do this," Carol uses testimonials from other students to show kids that those feelings and beliefs, as strong as they are, can change.

We're using the same kind of format to try to communicate information to students about deliberate practice, which is very effortful practice on things you can't yet do. We're actually developing an intervention and testing it in middle schools right now. We tell kids that deliberate practice is not easy. You are going to be confused. You are going to be frustrated. When you're learning, you have to make mistakes. You need to do things over and over again, and that can be boring. In theory, this intervention can change students' grit levels by changing their beliefs. I say "in theory," because we haven't shown it yet.

Teachers have so many good intuitions about this. They work on this every day: How do I get my kids to try harder? How do I get them to be determined, to stick with things? I'm really excited about starting a conversation to bring more people's ideas into the dialogue because I am guessing that some terrific teachers, basketball coaches, and guidance counselors have their own theories that need to be tested. There are probably going to be more ideas coming out of educators than out of scientists on how to help students develop grit.

Reading this article was reassuring, because my wife and I are committed to the concept of the growth mindset. Perhaps this approach, the influence of my past experiences on my parenting, and Camilla's own experiences will provide her with the grit and resilience she needs to be successful and productive in life. Fingers crossed.

Posted on August 12, 2014 .