Time-boundThe Power of Cultivating Grit & Resilience in Children
As a teacher, I’ve worked with hundreds of children with varying abilities. While I believe ALL children are capable of working through challenges and coping with stress, there are particular traits I’ve seen which enable students to have the most success—resilience and grit.
What is Resilience & Grit?
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from stress, adversity, failure, challenges, or even trauma. It’s falling off the bike and feeling a little scared to get back on, but getting back on anyway. Resilient kids are curious, brave, and trusting of their instincts. They know their limits and they push themselves to step outside of their comfort zones. Grit is another invisible characteristic that mentally strong people possess. Renowned Psychologist Angela Duckworth defines grit as a child’s “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”. It’s having stamina and sticking with one’s goals and future day in and day out.
Grit and resilience are not qualities that kids either have or don’t have. They are skills that kids can learn and develop as they grow. In today’s stressful world, resilience and grit help children become healthy, successful people who know how to cope with manageable threats-- which is critical for reaching life goals. Parents can cultivate these skills by creating a safe space for their children to try new things, helping them process setbacks and failures, and developing realistic, challenging, and attainable goals. Here’s how--
3 Ways to Cultivate Grit & Resilience in Your Child
Help your child discover an engaging activity or passion.
Having one or two activities that are challenging yet enjoyable can activate your child’s intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potential. As Duckworth points out, grit requires an intense interest in a goal and a passion to work relentlessly to accomplish it through months and
sometimes years of deliberate practice. This results in task mastery and an increase in confidence and self-esteem. Achieving the goal then builds your child’s sense of meaning and purpose. And success may then feedback into expanded interests and new passions, starting a fresh cycle of success. In this sense, grit, accomplishment, and meaning and purpose become a self-sustaining system.
Parents can help their child find a passion by fostering their natural talents and encouraging them to try different activities until they find one they enjoy and can see themselves continuing in. Praise effort and accomplishments, and encouraging autonomy by offering choices that promote independent problem solving.
Teach your child that it’s okay to make mistakes or fail
Once your child starts a new activity, they may experience setbacks or even failures. Parents can teach their kids that it’s okay to fail and make mistakes by being kind and patient when it happens. The messages kids hear about themselves from others easily translate into how they feel about themselves. Harsh words ("You did that wrong!") are harmful, not motivating. Studies show that when kids hear negative messages about themselves, it harms their self-esteem and discourages them from trying again.
Keep an open dialogue with your child that cultivates positive self talk. Teaching your child to be compassionate and positive with themselves will incentivize them to stay gritty. After a challenging situation, give your child space and then process the situation in a play-by-play breakdown. Ask questions about how your child felt, what they were thinking, and how they can improve next time. Keeping an encouraging, patient demeanor will encourage more openness, and your child will mirror this with their own self-talk.
When setbacks and failures happen, parents can help their children process the setbacks by teaching them about growth mindset. According to psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, people with a growth mindset believe they can get better through hard work and outlast and out-perform perform people with a fixed mindset (I lack innate ability, and either you have it or you don’t). Parents can help children develop a growth mindset by reminding them that our brains get stronger like a muscle with practice-- if we quit when things get tough, we stop encouraging the muscle to grow. Additionally, parents can pay attention to effort and persistence and teach children to use positive terms like ‘not yet’ instead of ‘can’t’.
Parents can help kids build resilience and confront uncertainty by teaching them to solve problems independently. While the gut reaction of the parent might be to jump in and help so that the child avoids dealing with discomfort, this actually weakens resilience. Kids need to experience discomfort so that they can learn to work through it and develop their own problem-solving skills. Without this skill-set in place, kids will experience anxiety and shut down in the face of adversity.
Finally, parents can also point out examples of people who displayed growth mindset in their lives in the face of setbacks and challenges:
Thomas Edison was told by his teachers he was ‘too dumb to learn anything. He proved them wrong and later discovered the light bulb.
Michael Jordan was cut from his Varsity basketball team and famously went on to have a legendary career in basketball.
Bethany Hamilton survived a debilitating shark attack, persevered, and returned to be a surf champion.
Break down big goals into smaller, attainable steps
Sometimes kids will need extra encouragement to be intrinsically motivated to accomplish something and not give up. The best way to help your kids learn this is to break down the goal — and recognize their progress. Learning to break down goals into manageable steps is a key life skill. Professor Robert S. Rubin states that to set your child up for success, make sure your goals are clear and reachable. Goals should be..
Specific (simple, sensible, significant).
Measurable (meaningful, motivating).
Achievable (agreed, attainable).
Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based).
Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive).
Choose goals that meet the SMART criteria to set your child up for success. For example, your child may have a goal to improve their reading skills. This goal is broad and hard to measure; however, parents can develop smaller, more specific, attainable goals such as “my child will increase reading stamina by reading 2 pages per weeknight”. Having these goals visually posted can help your child remember the goal and strive towards accomplishing it on their own.
The Big Picture
Grit and Resilience can be cultivated over time through hard-work, patience, and communication. The end result will be a child who is more open to life, courageous, communicative, and not afraid to take healthy risks. Parents can create positive and safe learning environments for children to try new things and make mistakes by modelling desired behavior, setting challenging yet attainable goals, encouraging effort, and keeping an open dialogue with their child.
For more on grit, watch Angela Duckworth’s Ted Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H14bBuluwB8
Coon D, Mitterer JO. Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior With Concept Maps. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2010.
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Scribner/Simon & Schuster.
Seligman, M. (2018). PERMA and the building blocks of well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(4), 333–335. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2018.1437466