View All Articles

The one thing your children must learn to be successful in school and life

November 05, 2017

When we talk about preparing our kids for the future, we usually focus on the concrete challenges before us- teaching our preschooler their letters and numbers, helping our kindergartener learn to read, expecting our elementary school kids to come home with A’s on their report cards or pushing older kids to compete in sports and extracurricular activities.

These are undoubtedly good things. In parenting, though, I try not to become too overwhelmed by the day-to-day minutiae. I want to focus on what really matters in the long run and to teach my children solid principles that will carry them into adulthood. Beyond teaching letters and numbers I find myself wondering, “What will help my kids learn to love themselves and others well? What will allow them to find fulfillment and joy as they become adults? What characteristics can I help them develop while they’re young that will help them achieve their dreams when they’re older, whatever those dreams might be?”

What will help my kids learn to love themselves and others well?

What will allow them to find fulfillment and joy as they become adults?

I don’t think anybody can give a definitive answer to those questions, but I’ve come back to the idea many times that the courage to keep going even when things get rough might just be the key. Some people call it grit.

I first came upon this idea of grit through the research of Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychology researcher and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She defines grit this way:

  • Passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.
  • Having stamina.
  • Sticking with your future, day in and day out… for years and working really hard to make that future a reality.
  • Living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

In her extensive research on the topic, Dr. Duckworth has attempted to answer one question in a variety of different settings: “Who is successful here, and why?”

Whether she is studying cadets at West Point, underprivileged children in a struggling school district, or an average group of high school seniors, there are some kids that seem to succeed well beyond their peers. And their success doesn’t correlate with the highest IQ, the wealth or stability of their families, social acceptance, good looks, standardized test scores or any other external variable.

It’s this concept of grit that determines who will excel beyond their peers.

Growing a kid with grit

The next logical question becomes, “How do kids develop grit?” and as it turns out there are some ways to pass this quality along to our children. It’s not as straightforward as having them memorize a stack of flashcards, practice math equations or regurgitate historical facts. It’s a way of thinking about life and learning that will impact their choices as they grow.

The idea of a growth mindset was developed by psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck. Our mindset is a collection of thoughts we have about ourselves, for example, “I am smart,” “I am a hardworker” or “I’m not a good student.” Our mindset can be fixed, meaning we believe that success is based on innate talent or intelligence, irrespective of effort. In other words, a fixed mindset means you believe that you’re either one of the lucky ones or you’re not, and there’s no changing the hand you’ve been dealt.

This stands in stark contrast to a growth mindset which tells us that no matter what innate skills and abilities we possess right now, with hard work and dedication we can do better. A growth mindset focuses on development and growth, seeing innate talent or intelligence as simply the starting point. This way of looking at the world fosters a love of learning, resilience and perseverance.

Perhaps the greatest difference between these two ways of thinking is the way we understand failure. Even the brightest child will fail at something, and in a fixed mindset the child will see that failure as the end of the road for that particular challenge. Perhaps if they struggle with math and science they’ll believe they will never realize their dream of becoming a doctor or a scientist. If they’ve been diagnosed with a learning disorder, they may believe they’ll never succeed in school. Suddenly their beliefs about themselves become a self-fulfilling prophecy because they give up in the face of setbacks.

Those with a growth mindset, though, learn to look at failures as an opportunity to do better. Failure isn’t permanent, and it’s not a reflection of a person’s value or intelligence. It means simply that we fell down, so we have to pick ourselves up, dust off the dirt and try again. It’s this ability to pick ourselves up and try again, to persevere in the face of challenges, and hold onto our goals despite setbacks that we define as grit.

What we teach our kids about learning, intelligence and abilities will have a profound effect on the choices they make going forward. If we want to equip our kids for success, we have to help them embrace failure and give them the tools to keep trying even when it gets hard. We must work to cultivate over time a growth mindset that allows them to flourish even amidst failure. And, very importantly, we have to step back and relinquish control enough to allow them to fail in the first place.

After all, grit can’t be given; it has to be earned. And no matter how much we love our kids, we have to step back and let them live it to learn it.

To learn more about this concept of grit and how it affects our kids, see Dr. Duckworth’s Ted Talk or pick up her book, Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance.  To learn more about how to develop and teach a growth mindset, see Dr. Carol Dweck’s Ted Talk or pick up her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. You can also do a quick search on Amazon for the term “growth mindset for kids” and you’ll come up with a handful of books about teaching children a growth mindset as well as children’s books that address this topic.