True Grit

There has been so much focus recently on testing and raising scores as a measure of children’s academic progress. But there are some educators who are more interested in understanding what it is that really helps children succeed, both in school and in life. The New York Times reported on one such inquiry into what qualities are most predictive of that kind of success.

The investigators in this study found that the quality most significant in outstanding achievement was determination and persistence in working toward a goal no matter what the obstacles or whar the length of time it would take. The name given to that particular quality was “grit”, and the challenge for educators became how to instill that quality in students.

Reading this report made me think about articles I posted recently which pointed to children not making the connection between input and outcome. Too often there is an expectation that things should come easily, and then the feeling that something is wrong – either with them or with what is expected of them – when things don’t. Children often don’t accept the fact that real work may have to go into achieving their goals.

The newspaper article’s headline was, “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” The idea seemed to be that failure builds persistence, or “grit”. This seems to me, to be misleading and not particularly useful. The thinking behind this is that surviving failure leads to the ability to overcome obstacles in achieving one’s goals. But how does one learn to overcome failure in the first place?

Undoubtedly, there are a number of factors that contribute to such an ability. One is certainly resilience. There are some children who just seem able to bounce back more readily from disappointments. Others who seem undaunted when met by obstacles in getting what they want. But at the other end of the spectrum are children who seem by nature not to be fighters and who accept defeat more readily.

The question for parents, however, is whether there is anything in our own interactions with our children that can help them develop persistence in the face of obstacles? This question goes back to one that parents think about from our children’s earliest years. It has to do with finding the right balance between frustration and gratification in responding to our children’s needs and wishes.

Somehow the idea has taken hold – perhaps through misinterpretations of psychological theories – that frustration is bad. The thought is that frustration is damaging to children’s development and can lead to a lack of self-confidence and a poor self-image. On another level, we don’t like having to deal with children’s behavior when they are frustrated.

The other side of the picture is that we all like to gratify our children. It makes us feel good to be able to give children what they want and need – not to mention that they are then also so much easier to handle and more pleasurable to be with. This has become part of feeling like a “good mother”.

But the point is that frustration is an inevitable and necessary part of life. Things happen in life over which we have no control, and our goal is to have our children develop the strength to deal with them if and when they happen. Of course, our hope is that they will not have to deal with things that are beyond their age and capacity. But neither does it help to try to protect them from the usual, unavoidable frustrations of everyday life.

This issue comes up daily in the most ordinary, commonplace ways. A child wants a cookie when it’s just before lunch time. Or she wants ice-cream on the way home from school that you don’t think she should have. Or he must have that toy he saw on television. So often the temptation is just to give in to avoid a confrontation, or a tantrum, or other unpleasantness. On the other hand, one’s thinking is sometimes, why not? It’s harmless and makes the child happy.

The point is not to allow the child to be frustrated for the sake of some hypothetical benefit of frustration. Rather, the reality is that we can’t have everything we want in life and that is a hard lesson for children to learn and for us as parents to teach. Children can learn from these small frustrations and disappointments that it is possible to survive them. They discover their own ability to master such experiences and move on. These are the building blocks that ultimately enable them to overcome more difficult obstacles.

Our own “grit” as parents may lie in helping children live through the tantrums or other reactions to frustration and disappointment, as unpleasant as that may be for us, so that they can experience that sense of mastery.

“True grit” may actually begin when you find you are able to wait until after lunch to get that cookie.

5 thoughts on “True Grit”

  1. I agree with that. I do. My mother used to say, “A little deprivation builds character.” And it did. But I’m not sure how to apply this theory to my own parenting. I got my daughter from foster care when she was seven and adopted her later that year. She had been profoundly neglected. Her living conditions had been so bad that her 2-year-old sister died. So, by the time I got my daughter, she’d lost her sister forever and been taken away from everything and everyone who was familiar to her. She’d already learned to live without food, hygiene, running water, decent housing, proper clothing, medical care, etc. She’d never even seen bed sheets before. Once in foster care, she was moved a few times, so each time she gave up people and everything that was familiar. Each new place brought a new family, new school, new doctor, new everything. She’d been to three different schools by the time she finished first grade.

    She’s about to turn 11 years old now. She’s lost more in her young life than any three adults I know. Now I’m supposed to teach her that we don’t get everything we want in life? Really? I think life already kicked her ass on that one. Where do I go from there? She got so used to not having food that now she still won’t say anything if she’s hungry. This child has had so much taken away from her that I want to give back to her just so she knows she deserves good things and not just bad things all the time. I do give her pretty much everything she wants, but she hardly ever asks for anything. She just accepts what you give her. What child goes to the grocery store with you and doesn’t ask for something? This one does. So on the rare occasion when she does ask for something, you’d better believe I get whatever it is. The very fact that she’ll ask is a triumph.

    So, does that mean that this article just doesn’t apply to a child who’s been grossly deprived? Is there a point to saying, “You know honey, you can’t have everything you want. Let’s wait until after lunch to have a cookie.” (Yeah, kid, I know you’ve already lost everything, so let’s make sure you don’t have a cookie, either.) She already knows she can’t have everything she wants. She already knows what she can live through and what she can live without. (Which makes consequences particularly hard because after all she’s lived without, going without TV for a weekend because she didn’t do her chores really isn’t a hardship to her.)


    1. Thank you for sharing your daughter’s story. Clearly, she has suffered enormous deprivation and what I wrote really doesn’t apply in the same way to someone with her life experience. It will take much time and nurturing for her to develop the trust and confidence that she will not once again lose everything she now has. From what you write she actually does have to first learn to ask for things and I agree with you that if she does, those requests need to be granted when possible. It is a long road and she doesn’t need any more experience of dealing with frustration.

      I admire the job you are doing. You are saving a child’s life.

      In a message dated 9/26/2011 8:01:59 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:



      1. Elaine, your reply was very gracious. 

        Clearly, your post does not apply to such abused children. Parents who have taken on the responsibility and privilege of raising such children require a whole set of other skills and attributes that simply cannot be covered in one blog post.  

        I think Abengel likely knows that and was venting some frustration.  Her struggle will be to enable the child to care first.  It’s a sad sad story. 

        Abengel, thank you for saving this little girl and caring so much.  I hope you are rewarded for your efforts. 


  2. Writing about frustration, the author seems to actually be alluding to delayed gratification.  If you WANT (fill in the blank), then first you have to DO (such-and-such) to get it.  I use this with my 4yr old daughter all the time.  She asked me yesterday on the way to her piano lesson if she could play computer games when we got home, so I used the piano lesson as the work necessary to get what she wants.  If she did her best and had a good attitude, then she’d get to play her games.  And she did!  It also instills a sense of genuine pride for achievements.  


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