Thursday, May 12, 2016

Developing “Grit”

Last Thursday’s Boys State Tennis Championship match was a sheer delight.  Bosque’s #1 doubles team of Will, Class of ‘16 and his 8th grade brother Neil, faced off against the Bosque #2 doubles team of Cameron, Class of ‘17 and Gus, Class of ‘18.  Since it was guaranteed that the champions would be Bobcats, we could cheer for both teams, applaud every great shot, and appreciate the outstanding effort of all four players.  

As exciting as the championship was, perhaps even more impressive was the determination that the players demonstrated in the semi-final matches.  From all accounts, those contests were amazing as both our teams came back from being down, in one case defeating a higher- seeded opponent and in the other, dealing with a player’s severe leg cramps that stopped play for a while.  When it would have been all too easy to throw in the towel, both duos demonstrated will and perseverance—or grit—and in the end, won out.  

For a while now, there’s been a great deal of discussion on the topic of “grit.”  The University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Angela Duckworth is regarded as one of the foremost spokespeople on the topic, and she has just come out with a new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  In a recent interview with The New York Times, Professor Duckworth spoke on the topic and how parents can help their children develop a sense of grit and confidence.  

Many studies, along with anecdotal evidence that we can all probably cite, point to the power of determination as one of the crucial elements in success.  As Duckworth says, “My lab has found that this measure beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations.”  We were probably all told at one point in our lives the Thomas Edison adage that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  Grit may be crucial to success, but it’s not always clear if there is anything adults can do to aid children in learning this.  

In the interview, Duckworth counsels parents to remember that teaching children grit involves the same parenting styles they would use to teach other good habits.  She advises us to, “Be really, really demanding, and be very, very supportive. By this I don’t mean material things; I mean emotional support. If parents are warm and loving, the kids tend to feel loved. Respect, or what the parenting literature calls ‘autonomy support,’ is also essential. That’s when parents allow their kids to make their own decisions just as soon as they are capable.”  Good parenting, like good teaching, means holding our children to high standards, but in a way that lets them know that we respect and care for them.  It is our belief in them that encourages our children to be their very best.
Of course this is not always easy, but it’s incumbent on us as parents to show our children what grit means in a variety of ways. One of these ways is to share stories with our children of times when we faced challenges and had to summon the courage to continue.  It is also important to bear in mind that as we teach our children determination, we also need to emphasize the Bosque core value of integrity.  Grit may be important, but it’s not sufficient if we want our children to be both successful and good.  On a daily basis, the news reminds us of people who are perseverant but also destructive.  We want our children to be gritty, confident, caring, and compassionate.  
Whether it’s practicing a forehand, rehearsing a monologue, studying for a test, writing a paper, or putting the finishing brush strokes on a painting, our children will encounter frustration somewhere along the line.  As the adults in their lives, we need to demonstrate the belief in our children by holding them to high standards, while also consoling them when they experience defeat or discouragement.  In the process, they will come to believe in themselves and develop an inner confidence and resilience. It may be one of the most difficult elements of being a parent or a teacher, but when we see our children achieve success after encountering adversity, it is as beautiful to watch as an exciting tennis match on a sunny afternoon.