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How Do We Teach Our Kids “Grit”?


How Do We Teach Our Kids About Grit-

When I was younger, I used to dream about boarding school.

Not only did I dream about it, between the ages of 12 and 14, I made it my life’s mission to go away to boarding school.

A very strange goal perhaps.  I lived on a farm in the Adirondacks with no real neighbors or kids my age for miles.  I went to a rural school where I felt academically unchallenged and knew that I did not “fit in” with the rest of my peers.  I dreamed of fancy colleges, a writing career, and living in a big city.

To me, boarding school seemed like the perfect answer.  During the 1980s there was a book series called The Girls of Canby Hall about the adventures of a group of girls who attended an all girls boarding school outside of Boston.  And I was also a big fan of The Facts of Life, a television show about girls at boarding school.

So I researched it.  I went to the big county library and found a guide to boarding schools. It was an old edition, but gave the addresses of several schools.  I wrote away for another more recent guide, contacted schools for viewbooks and applications, and created my own notebooks with tables comparing the locations, facilities, and other information about each school.  I asked each of my teachers for recommendations and arranged to visit one of the schools on my own  during an admissions open house weekend.  Then I applied for scholarships, and when I received one, it did not quite cover the cost of full tuition so I wrote the only truly wealthy person that I knew of, the father of a neighbor who was a hedge fund manager in New York City.  Although he didn’t even really know me, he arranged to cover the costs of my boarding school tuition that were not covered by my scholarship.

About all of this, my parents either did not know about my efforts or completely disapproved.  (They finally relented and I went to the Emma Willard School.)

About my goal of going away to boarding school, I was both passionate and calculated.  I persevered despite adversity and setbacks.  I had what I now know is called “grit.”  It’s now one of the buzzwords in education, the subject of a popular book by journalist Paul Tough and research by the Gates Foundation.

The idea of “grit” was popularized by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth.  She defines “grit” as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” It involves “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failures, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”  It’s one of a set of “noncognitive” skills — such as curiosity, resilience, self-control — that researchers now realize impact students’ long-term success just as much — or possibly more –than academic skills or IQ.

But can “grit” be taught?  Can tenacity and self-discipline be part of the curriculum?  How can parents instill these “character”-based qualities in their children?

This is one of the fundamental questions that American education now faces.  It’s clear that our education system’s relentless focus on skills, on test preparation, on acquiring knowledge disconnected from the reality of facing adversity and thriving when faced with real world challenges is not enough.

Grit is partially the subject of my dissertation, in which I examined the experiences of a group of urban girls who are prepared for boarding school by a nonprofit in Boston.  This amazing organization spent hundreds of hours instilling these qualities in their students so that they could succeed at some of the most rigorous and elite boarding schools in the country.

If grit is so important, what can parents do to instill it?

1.  Ask about whether your school includes the development of these qualities — perserverance, conscientousness, self-control, curiosity — in their curriculum.  (There are many schools that are trying innovative approaches to creating a school culture that focuses on noncognitive skills.  One of the members of my dissertation committee, Scott Seider, wrote a recent book describing three charter schools’ in Boston and their approaches to character development.)

2. Learn more about grit.  At Angela Duckworth’s UPenn site, you can take a test to figure out your own or your child’s “grit” score.

3.  Instead of praising your kid for his grades or for being “smart,” praise him for being tenacious and determined.  Focusing on those qualities of “stick-to-it-ness” may help kids succeed more than praise for particular achievements.  If your child falls down when learning to ride a bike, praise his efforts at getting back up and trying again and again, rather than only praising when he learns to ride fast on his own.

4. Allow your child to get frustrated. Parents hate to see their kids struggle.  But learning  from challenges (as well as failure) is the key to making the connection for kids that true achievement doesn’t come easily.

5.  Focus family discussions on effort rather than grades or innate skill.  Be a role model for your child of “grittiness”.  Try new things and talk about how difficult they are and how they don’t come easily to you.  Talk about your own goals — running a half-marathon, cleaning out the basement — and explain how you set smaller goals to achieve them.  Share your own struggles and how you got past them.

6.  Most of all, remind your kids every day that failure is not something to be afraid of.


  • If you’re interested in “grit” and the theory of how it impacts kids’ educational and lifetime achievement, listen to a phenomenonal podcast of NPR’s This American Life.  Paul Tough is interviewed about How Children Succeed, as well as some of the kids who are featured in his book.

Thank you for FTSF for the prompt!

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  1. Wow, you really did get to live your dream. I must admit, I too was a huge fan of The Facts of Life and they really did make boarding school look like so much fun. But not sure the reality of it, because of course that was just a mere TV show, but still I truly dod admire your grit and tenacity here!! Thanks for linking this up with us Jessica!! 🙂
    Janine Huldie recently posted…Finish the Sentence Friday Blog Hop #20My Profile

  2. I love how you tied the prompt to your dissertation… and the overall philosophical thrust of your blog. This bit particularly resonated with me: Instead of praising your kid for his grades or for being “smart,” praise him for being tenacious and determined.
    nothingbythebook recently posted…They live for these momentsMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      Thank you! It’s hard to do. And I hope that I do a good job of this as a parent! I think as a culture, we’re so used to giving kids praise for excelling. But in order to help kids learn the strategies to do well at all aspects of life, it’s important to tell kids that it’s the trying and failing that teach you the real lessons in life.

  3. Kelly says:

    Ture Grit! I love this post and believe 100% in what you are saying. Kids need grit, tenacity & a willingness to try. I hope I am teaching my girls these traits by example. Looking forward to checking out the links you provided. In a blogosphere filled with lots of nonsense, this type of thought provoking insight that you share is worthy of praise. I am going to FB this to share it further.
    Thank you,

  4. WOW, I am so impressed that you arranged to go to boarding school through scholarship and having the guts to write a letter to your wealthy neighbor. Seriously that’s really awesome. I wanted to go to boarding school for a short time – but that was more Facts of Life (tv show) inspired than anything else.

    And I love #6. failure is not something to be afraid of. I think that’s something I can remind myself of as well as teaching it to my son. Thank you.
    Kristi Campbell recently posted…Admitting special needs and saying “autism” is hardMy Profile

  5. Katia says:

    This is truly impressive, Jessica. I am not sure if resourcefulness is a component of grit, but I am in awe of not only having a clear goal but finding ways around the various obstacles you encountered including lack of funding. I’ve sent this post to my husband, he shares a lot of articles with me on child discipline and I don’t he’s heard of grit either. As always this was an eye opener and a fascinating read.
    Katia recently posted…Fear Took me in Circles – Finish the Sentence FridayMy Profile

  6. Alison says:

    According to that test I don’t have much grit. But I’m generally happy, enjoy my career, etc. I didn’t know “academic technologist” was a thing back when I was in school. I’m so, so, so glad though that I didn’t through money into specific career paths that interested me when I was younger, I’m glad that I really took advantage of the opportunities os a liberal arts education and fell into this career instead.
    Alison recently posted…All about the boobiesMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      Me too! I’m so glad that I’m a liberal arts graduate. It has served me well. I hope that educators don’t turn all this “grit” research into an excuse to force kids into specific career paths as early as possible.

  7. Moxy is what came to mind for me while reading this post. I’m surprised that in agreeing to help you out with the balance of your tuition, the neighbor wasn’t so impressed by your efforts he didn’t offer you a job when you got out … or did he? 😉 Have to say though – if I was going to head off to boarding school, I would have picked one further from home LOL. [#FTSF]
    Chris at Hye Thyme Cafe recently posted…Finish the Sentence Friday: When I was younger I wanted …My Profile

    • Jessica says:

      I picked the closest school because it seemed the most feasible in terms of getting back and forth from home. I was terrified of being TOO FAR away as a kid. And, no, he didn’t offer me a job, but I should reconnect with him at some point, right?

    • Jessica says:

      Oh, I think, Julie, that you definitely have both! Actually you have the grit levels of about ten people combined. All you have to do is explain to your son how hard you work, how much effort you put in to reach your goals, and why these goals matter to you. That’s the theory anyway. In reality, who knows?

  8. Jessica, I love this! I had no idea that that was how your educational background evolved! What a fascinating and inspiring story! It made me want to analyze my own “grit”, as well as that of my six year old daughter. Thanks for such fascinating food for thought today! I really enjoyed reading more about your childhood ambition!
    Stephanie @ Mommy, for real. recently posted…Things I’d Like To Tell My Six Year Old Daughter and Her FriendsMy Profile

  9. Amy says:

    GREAT post, Jessica. I love #3. My husband was praised his whole life for being the “genius child”. It was ALWAYS brought up. But he totally slacked in school and was afraid to try new things (“What if I fail?”). So when he hit college, he had to do homework for the first time in his life…well, he SHOULD have done homework, but he was just used to playing. He flunked several classes his first year, and was a complete wreck when he didn’t understand something immediately. The guy didn’t know how to study for a test! Blows me away. He grew up a bit, and when we got married, he buckled down. He is now in doctorate of Physical Therapy program, and has to work his butt off…even today I never praise him for being smart when he aces a test, I praise him for studying hard! My dad is a successful engineer and will tell anyone that he has average intelligence, but he’ll outwork every person in the class! THAT’S what we should praise and recognize in our children…their hard work and determination!

    I loved this article called “Raising Resilient Children”. It’s from a Christian viewpoint, but the author, a professional counselor, has some incredibly practical strategies for ANY parents! I thought it might be interesting to you. 🙂

    Amy recently posted…The Elusive Art of Making Mommy Friends (or any friends!)My Profile

  10. Considerer says:

    Thank you for this in-depth look at ‘grit’. I love a good, considered opinion. Sounds like you’ve historically done all you can to get the soldiering on done. Awesome stuff trying to pass that on to future generations.
    Considerer recently posted…7 Quick Takes #29 x FTSFMy Profile

  11. Jean says:

    Can you hear me clapping? I just stood up and clapped some more for this post. I want to print it out and leave this in pediatrician’s offices for waiting parents. Common Core seems very focused on “grappling” with concepts but for kids to grapple well they need to figure out persistence. I actually think I’m giving my kids grit and that is a great source of pride for me but it has been 100% intentional the whole way and it does NOT come naturally. Great post!
    Jean recently posted…You can do it, put your mind into itMy Profile

  12. Jen says:

    Wow. and Wow. I cannot believe I know someone who had the tenacity to make a dream like that happen without any help from her parents. That is amazing and explains a lot 🙂 I am truly grateful for this post. I completely agree, and have already been doing 1 or 2 of those things, but now really see the “reason” behind the words. Thank you so much!
    Jen recently posted…Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be CowboysMy Profile

  13. Jessica, we may be kindred spirits. I have a very similar story. I grew up on a farm in KY and felt out of place in my rural public school system. I mailed letters to 20 boarding schools in January of my Freshman year in high school. Found the perfect one and got in but didn’t apply in time to get financial aid for the following year. So I reapplied the following year and was able to get enough financial aid for my family to afford it. It was also all my initiative. I know my mom didn’t want me to go. My dad had died just 4 years before and my brother was off at college, but she supported me. I spent my last two years of high school at The Putney School in Vermont. It opened my eyes to so much of the world; incredible experience. I do wonder, however, how I would feel about letting my daughter fly off to boarding school a few thousand miles a away… But you’re right – that is GRIT! Reading your story and remembering mine is a reminder to myself that I do have incredible grit, and I forget that sometimes. And I’m glad for the tips on how to instill grit in our kids. I think part of mine was growing up poor, on a farm with lots of work and freedom, and feeling different from the kids around me. My daughter won’t have the “benefit” of that upbringing, so I may have to be more aware of teaching grit than my parents were.
    Alice Callahan recently posted…Sleep Deprivation: The Dark Side of ParentingMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      Alice, I had no idea that we were such “kindred” spirits! That’s amazing that we have such similar stories. It took me a while — and I certainly didn’t think of it that way at the time — but I do view my childhood and upbringing of freedom and work as an advantage. I probably would never allow my child to go away to boarding school either, but I wouldn’t live on an isolated farm either. It is tougher for a whole lot of kids to learn about “grit” authentically today. For poorer kids, upward mobility is a lot harder to do; and for richer kids and children of college-educated parents, parenting in general is such a different experience for so many reasons. I would love to talk to you more about this!
      Jessica recently posted…How Do We Teach Our Kids “Grit”? My Profile

  14. I’m going to send this to my mother. She’ll be pleased to have a diagnosis for my ‘condition’. This article made me feel proud to be tenacious, determined and gritty instead of like I need to temper my instincts as I have sometimes felt the need to do in order not to be tiresome to others. Noting all the benefits you listed of this trait, I feel fortunate that my two young daughters seem to carry a natural grittiness as well. I will try harder to see it as a positive thing at those times when their intentions seem set in opposition to mine. : )

  15. Rachel says:

    “Grit”, what a great word! I haven’t heard it used in relation to education, and I liked how you used “testing” and “skills” as a counterpoint to it. I’d like to hear more. I hope you write more posts about “grit”.

  16. Sara says:

    This is such a thought-provoking piece. As a new mother, I constantly worry about how to best prepare my son for the world. Am I doing too much? Am I doing too little? I look forward to reading more about grit and how I can help foster this quality in my son.
    Sara recently posted…Finish The Sentence FridayMy Profile

  17. Interesting. I think I heard of that study when it first published. I’ve also read similar studies about self-control. Makes sense. Like I always say most ppl have to learn things the hard way to really benefit from it & the lessons learned. Interesting to hear about your childhood. I can’t believe you did all that on your own & that you wrote to that guy you hardly knew.

  18. Thanks for a very interesting website. Where else could I get that kind of info written in such an ideal approach? I have a mission that I am just now working on, and I’ve been on the look out for such information.

  19. This is excellent, Jessica!
    When I grew up as a teenager, my parents always used “boarding school” as a threat. They would sent me there if I didn’t behave (maybe just the German boarding schools are scary? 😉 )… When I did want to go to Brussels to study to be an interpreter in the European Parliament they said no – nobody in my family was allowed to be “smarter” than the parents… Sigh.
    I think my parents’ rules and “no” were exactly how I developed true grit – and I try to pass it on to my children as well. I wrote a post about parenting a few months ago, that has a lot of the same “rules” and suggestions in it!
    Kerstin @ Auer Life recently posted…A Lady in France – A ReviewMy Profile

  20. Ganeshkumar says:

    First of all, congrats for choosing to go to boarding school when you were very young. Amazing courage. Second, you have raised a very important issue about what parents can do teach “grit” to their children. I think most parents (including me) miss this bus completely. Thanks to nuclear families and working parents (with ever more demanding corporate culture), spending time with kids itself is becoming quite a challenge. This still does not shift the onus from the parents to someone else. Thanks for highlighting this issue. Its a very fundamental one, but extremely critical coz if “grit” can be instilled in kids, it has really long serving purpose in any walks of life.
    Ganeshkumar recently posted…20 Interesting Psychology FactsMy Profile

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