Raising gritty kids


My 9-year-old son came home from school yesterday “coughing,” saying he would be too sick to go to school today.

The cause of his “sickness”? The next day’s mandated monthly 90-minute liturgy at the Orthodox school he attends, during which, with a few exceptions, the children are required to stand.

Later that day, his 15-year-old sister announced she wanted to quit basketball. It’s her first year on the team and she was tired of looking stupid on the court. 

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I was, not for the first time, in a quandary: Do I let them off the hook or force them to do something difficult?

Recent research by psychologist Angela Duckworth examines grit and self-control as indicators of future success. (The appropriately named) Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, agrees with Duckworth’s premise that grit, not IQ, determines a child’s educational success.Tough, studying the poor performance of low-income students, arrives at some surprising conclusions:

“… [T]he conventional wisdom is that the big problem for low-income kids is that they don’t get enough cognitive stimulation early on. In fact, what seems to have more of an effect is the chaotic environments that many low-income kids grow up in and the often stressful relationships they have with the adults around them.”

In an Amazon.com interview, Tough answers the obvious question: If poverty isn’t the determining factor for these students, what is?

“That’s an idea that I think was best expressed by Dominic Randolph, the head of the Riverdale Country School. … Here’s how he put it: ‘The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.’” (Italics mine.)

Learning to deal with failure and from mistakes, according to Duckworth and Tough, are critical for a child’s success in life. This growing body of research slaps many modern parental philosophies across the face. Our generation worries more that our children will be scarred than if they will be strengthened by grit-building activities like practicing piano scales, working part time, studying spelling words, cleaning out the chicken house, and eating yucky vegetables. We are creating progeny who don’t know how to keep going when the going gets tough and, to continue with clichés, only time will tell what the cost to them—and to our culture—will be.

I was blessed to have a father who believed in grit and lived it. On Saturdays, we didn’t sleep in, we had “working parties” where we hauled a winter’s worth of wood and weeded a garden half the size of Eden. When I struggled with physics in high school, he sat next to me at the kitchen table helping me—for hours. We learned early on how hard you could work, how cold you could be, how hungry you could get without actually dying.

And, though we hated it at the time, it was good for us.

The grit Dad instilled made me who I am. And maybe, hopefully, in not letting my kids quit or avoid hard things like standing through 90-minute liturgies or memorizing complicated basketball plays, I will pass his grit on to them.

Amy Henry
Amy Henry

Amy is a married mother of six and a WORLD correspondent from Kansas. Follow her other "scribbles" at Whole Mama or by reading her book Story Mama: What Children's Stories Teach Us About Life, Love and Mothering. Follow Amy on Twitter @wholemama.


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