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How Adults Reduce Grit in Kids

Recently I read Angela Duckworth’s book, “Grit.” Dr. Duckworth left a high-paying job in consulting to take a job teaching math to seventh graders in a New York City public school. She quickly realized that IQ isn’t the only thing separating the successful students from those who struggled. In her book, she explains her theory of “grit” as a predictor of success. She believes grit is a combination of both:

  • Passion – “I love this issue and want to do it more.”
  • Perseverance – “I want to do it long enough to master it.”

Today, as a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Angela also believes educators and parents need to understand how students develop from a psychological perspective. It’s not usually a lack of intelligence that prevents young people from development. It’s that we’ve removed most of the grit from their lives. We’ve stolen the need for grit in their childhood.

Sadly, the single greatest predictor of success is grit.

Grit means sticking with something for a long time. It’s approaching life like it’s a marathon—not a sprint. Grittier kids are more likely to solve problems, to achieve goals and to graduate. Talent doesn’t make us gritty. IQ doesn’t make us gritty. In fact, they often diminish it. With talent and smarts, kids easily assume they can coast on their abilities. In one study, Duckworth found that smarter students actually had less grit than their peers who scored lower on an intelligence test. This finding suggests that, among the participants—all students at an Ivy League school—those who are not as bright as their peers “compensate by working harder and with more determination.” And their effort pays off: The grittiest students—not the smartest ones—had the highest GPAs. Dr. Duckworth believes we, adults, need to get grittier about building grit in our kids.

The State of Grit in Our History

Angela’s research demonstrates that past generations tended to develop grit as they grew into adulthood. They had to do so. My parents are both from the “Builder Generation,” (1929-1945) and grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. Do you remember these days? Or have you heard about these days?

  • Life was slower, with less technology and on-demand conveniences.
  • Life was harder, with more manual labor jobs and do-it-yourself lifestyles.
  • Life was more boring, with fewer screens and activities to entertain you.
  • Life was quieter, without social media pinging at you night and day.

While these realities may sound depressing, they actually nourished grit in people’s lives. With less glitz, glamour, noise and clutter, people stuck with something longer, even when the novelty wore off. Jobs lasted longer. Marriages lasted longer. Memberships lasted longer. Friendships lasted longer.

  • There wasn’t an expectation to be entertained.
  • There wasn’t an expectation that everything would be fun or fast.
  • There wasn’t an expectation that someone else would do the work we had been assigned.

Today’s culture of speed and convenience frequently reduces the level of grit kids develop as they mature. Instead, we have a “Google Reflex” and assume we can click and find answers in seconds. We don’t have to memorize as much. We don’t have to wait as much. We don’t have to work as hard as we once did. We don’t have to search as long. This portion of our culture is out of our control.

But I’d like to focus here on one element that is IN our control.

The Inverse Relationship Between Our Leadership Style and Grit

There is an inverse relationship between the way we’ve led our students and the development of grit in their lives. In the name of results, we’ve all but given them the answers to the problems. I believe adults today unwittingly diminish the cultivation of grit in our young people. Just observe the patterns:

  • In class, we prescribe each step of their day, leaving little for them to figure out on their own.
  • In practice, we direct every minute, conditioning them to merely follow directions and not think on their own.
  • In extra-curricular activities, we program every minute, tutoring them to wait for our instruction for each move.
  • At home, we often over-function, placing them in extra-curricular activities (instead of jobs or doing chores), forcing them to need our leadership.

When we over-function, they learn to under-function and fail to build grit.

Consider These Common-Sense Thoughts on Grit:

1. The more we do for them, the less they learn to do for themselves.

2. The easier life is for them, the less they naturally develop grit.

3. The more we prescribe for them, the less they’re apt to develop grit.

4. The faster their solutions come, the less they tend to develop grit.

5. The more resources we give them, the less resourceful they become.

The Role of Deliberate Practice

Deliberate Practice is an idea we must re-introduce to students. It’s the idea that grit requires consistent, ongoing habits to be practiced, even when results are not fast and the activity is not fun. Jonah Lehrer, journalist for Wired magazine, summarizes this term for us:

“Researchers, such as K. Anders Ericsson, argue that talent is really about deliberate practice, about putting in those 10,000 hours of intense training (plus or minus a few thousand hours). Beethoven wasn’t born Beethoven – he had to work damn hard to become Beethoven. As Ericsson wrote in his influential review article, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance:” “The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.”

My challenge to you? Stop doing the grit for your students. Let them build it themselves.


New Book: Marching Off the Map:
Inspire Students to Navigate a Brand New World

Our new book is now available for preorder! Leading today’s students often feels like being in a new country with old maps that don’t work. Understanding and connecting with the generation in this land is often times frustrating and draining. We need new strategies on how to march off our old maps and create new ones.

This new resource collates decades of research and experiences into one practical guide that helps adults:

  • Inspire students to own their education and their future
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  • Enable students to push back from the constant digital distractions and practice mindfulness
  • Raise kids who make healthy progress, both emotionally and intellectually, through their teenage years
  • Give students the tools to handle the complexities of an ever-changing world
  • Understand and practically apply the latest research on Generation Z

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