Finally everyone is admitting what high-end private schools have been saying for years: The most important indicator of future success in kids is grit. Even the Obama administration has joined the grit bandwagon. Educators define this as the ability to keep trying hard in the face of very bad odds.

It’s not controversial that kids need to learn grit. It is controversial that it could even be taught in school. Angela Duckworth, an psychology professor at University of Pennsylvania, developed measures for kids to assess their own grit. She points out that it’s difficult for schools to measure grit, which makes it difficult to include it in school curriculum.

New York City public schools have resorted to teaching kids grit by having them read about people who did great things after a failure. But it seems to me that this isn’t teaching grit, it’s teaching history.

Grit takes years to develop. You need to be dedicated to something, and then you need a setback to overcome.

The precondition for grit is passion. We find grit by putting our heart and soul into something we love. In a classroom, kids choose from the opportunities a teacher provides. Obviously, this is very limited, and it’s hard to believe that all kids will find their passion within the confines of a classroom.

You know how you can tell if you are teaching your kid grit? If you want to protect him from over investing in a path to disappointment. All the times people have said to me: “What do you expect your son to be? A professional cellist? That’s not very likely.”

I answer that question once a week. Often in front of my son. As if he can’t hear. That’s how I know what grit is. He’s completely over-invested in playing cello. I get it. But grit is over-investment. And school can’t provide that. So we pretend to not value it, and we question parents who allow it. Instead of encouraging kids who are exhibiting grit we admonish them as outliers with unreasonable dreams.

53 replies
  1. sheela
    sheela says:

    I thought this when I heard another ‘grit’ story the other day. Then I thought… pretty much everything reformers agree kids need is not provided in school. In fact, at this very moment I am procrastinating writing a grant for a cool music nonprofit (the founder was bandmates with Danny Pearl and inspired to bring about peace through music) that offers after school song writing workshops with industry professionals. They create an original song and music video. Among the 21st Century skills (www.p21.org) that ed people agree kids need to succeed are: collaboration and communication, problem-solving and critical thinking, and creativity and innovation. Nonprofits like the one I am working with are providing the opportunities for kids to develop these skills because schools can’t. (And they are scrounging for money to do it, while school budgets are huge regardless of how well they serve their students.)

    Reply
  2. Jessica Binder
    Jessica Binder says:

    Places like this true adventure playground (basically a junk yard where kids can explore and build on their own) seems key to kids learning grit. Grit without risk is an impossible goal. Our cultures fascination with an end goal like “grit” but it’s inability to understand the means needs to get there, belies the pervasive lack of open minded thinking in our culture about schooling and child development.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for posting this link, Jessica. It’s a great read. And as soon as I saw the cover photo for the article — kids in tons of protective gear to the point that they can’t do anything — I knew that whatever was in the article, it would support taking kids out of school. Because you can’t encourage kids to take risks with a 20:1 student-teacher ratio. It would be long-term chaos.

      Penelope

      Reply
    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      Agree 100%! Schools can’t be expected to teach it. However, some can encourage it in disciplines which are not subject to standardized testing, like art.

      When I ‘ve taught art, I make it clear that students’ work ethic is just as important as what they create. For some, technically good artwork is easy. They finish it off to a reasonable standard and are satisfied. My job is to push the talented kids to a higher standard of work (they’ll end up in IB & IGCSE art programs), while encouraging less-talented kids to achieve more than they thought they could.

      Reply
  3. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    Grit is what I want my kids to have, too. I haven’t seen what they are most passionate about yet. My 4-yr-old son loves cars, and my 2-yr-old daughter is very good with her body (I think the Myers Briggs type for this is SP, isn’t it?) and basically follows her brother’s instructions.

    I always tell myself, to encourage them to do what they love. But I guess it takes time to find and develop that thing?

    Thanks, Penelope.

    Reply
    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      One is very lucky to find a passion in their youth, some of us it takes well into adulthood to find it. Your children are very fortunate to have a mother like you. Being emotionally available and present in their lives is the best thing you can do for them. :)

      Reply
      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I wonder about this. I vacillate between agreeing with you and disagreeing. On the one hand, the only way a kid can get grit is with self-confidence and resilience which often comes from being loved unconditionally. But then I think the reason kids don’t usually find their passion in childhood is that they are stuck in a school environment that crushes those instincts.

        Penelope

        Reply
  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “She points out that it’s difficult for schools to measure grit, which makes it difficult to include it in school curriculum.”

    Grit is difficult to include in a school curriculum and measure. The most important questions and questions with the greatest priority will always be – What benefit is it to the school? – because they will be asked from the school’s perspective. It’s really that simple.

    Reply
  5. Kristi
    Kristi says:

    Is grit really over-investment? Or is it that the unusual benefits one gets from grit can be difficult to explain compared to what can appear to be an extreme investment? Maybe part of developing grit is learning to put that perception into perspective.

    You’ve written about knowing when to quit (which schools don’t teach very well, either, since kids don’t get to choose when to quit, and the reasons for continuing are often not well-explained). Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge whether I am about to over-invest in something that isn’t likely to work out, or if I am quitting too soon.

    I’m becoming more convinced that there isn’t one right way to measure that, but that I do need to watch out for being “over-invested” in too many areas.

    Reply
      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        This article should have been linked in your post!!! Fabulous example but very heartbreaking. Makes me wonder if Tetreault has made his dream come true yet or if he is still working on the dream.

        Reply
      • Elizabeth
        Elizabeth says:

        “Mostly, though, he’s consumed by a single thought these days: Give me success or take this desire away from me. One of the two.”

        He may need to redefine a limited definition of success. If a classical musician can create or find a unique niche, they can become successful artists in their own right, for example Zoe Keating http://www.zoekeating.com/projects.html

        Reply
      • Kristi
        Kristi says:

        Alfie Kohn had a piece in the Washington Post yesterday that made me think of this post: http://www.alfiekohn.org/miscellaneous/grit.htm

        Of course, a big portion of his argument is that grit within the traditional school environment is not necessarily a good thing. But even in an independent educational setting, another one of his arguments makes intuitive sense to me, as someone with multiple passions: that the value of specialization and grit stem form personal preference rather than research.

        In my experience, it’s useful to assess how productive I am being in my passions, and to be realistic about how many of them I can pursue. It’s not useful to hold myself ot an unrealistic standard of “grit.”

        Reply
  6. Eric
    Eric says:

    “New York City public schools have resorted to teaching kids grit by having them read about people who did great things after a failure. But it seems to me that this isn’t teaching grit, it’s teaching history.”

    I agree, they’re learning history but the more they see people who they respect exhibit ‘grit’, the more they are inspired to do the same. I agree that it is incredibly difficult for schools to teach grit but the lesson doesn’t just come from their own experience with a tough situation. They need to be able to see role models (parents, teachers, neighbors, mentors, etc.) with grit first. Someone to inspire (not require) them so when their turn comes there is more motivation to push through.

    Reply
  7. Mark
    Mark says:

    I’m not entirely convinced that grit can be taught at all.

    You can try to teach your kid how better to deal with stumbling blocks or ways to deal with frustration, but that’s not the same thing. At best, the kid is learning how not to reach her inherent grit limit quite as quickly.

    I am more of the school that adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.

    Reply
  8. Jay Cross
    Jay Cross says:

    Penelope,

    It’s a shame that people ask you that question in front of your son. I hope it doesn’t discourage him.

    People used to tell me “9 out of 10 businesses fail” or whatever the stupid statistic is, and I said “that may be true, but all the ones that make it believed they would and kept working at it, so if I stop I’m CHOOSING to be one of the failures.”

    In other words, over-investment is necessary but not sufficient. Emphasis on necessary.

    So what your son’s critics are really saying is “I think it’s better to completely eliminate risk from my life than pursue anything interesting, and you should see things like I do.”

    Taking it a step higher…when you realize that schools are run by traditionalists, who care more about eliminating risk than maximizing interestingness/passion, it’s obvious why grit is non-existent there.

    Reply
  9. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    You are such an inspiration. I like Seth Godin’s blog, but he posts every single day. With your blog, it’s like it must be a magical day to get to read your thoughts, see some pictures, and browse some awesome links. Your blog is awesome! And I love how you renamed this part education. I feel like less of a nut job passing on links to your posts. It’s funny how there’s such a stigma against homeschooling that someone who wants to homeschool, and is currently homeschooling a 17 month old, still feels odd passing on a link that explains why homeschooling is good.

    My son and I started language class at our nearby Friendship Centre. He also goes to different parks 4 or 5 times a week. He likes to help take care of the cats and do stuff around the house like sweep. And he is starting to show great pre-literacy reading skills. He goes to an in-home daycare one day a week, and in a few weeks when he’s 18 months he’s going to be going for 2 days a week at a developmental centre down the road from our apartment. Are things hard? Yes. Am I glad I’m not the parent who primarily stays home? Also yes. But I’m so glad I came across this blog and realized, before my kid was born, that this was possible, and doable. Once he turns 6 and can’t go to the play-based developmental centre, I’m hoping that we’ll be able to have him just keep on doing whatever it is he wants to do.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That is such an interesting comment, Lisa! I instinctively knew to change it from homeschooling to education, but I couldn’t pinpoint why I did it until your comment.

      The word homeschooling seems to marginalize the discussion of how ridiculous school is. And also, homeschooling really encompasses everything that is not going to school, which is so huge, but most people don’t identify it as that huge.

      I know what you mean by feeling like a nut job forwarding posts on a blog called homeschooling. I got that same feeling, and it’s my blog!

      I think pretty much nothing changed on the blog when I changed the title except that I realized that I want to be part of a mainstream discussion. I no longer identify homeschooling as something weird and offbeat, which is how I saw it when I was deciding to start. Now I see homeschooing as the focus of the smart, realistic people who are discussing education reform.

      Penelope

      Reply
  10. Abby
    Abby says:

    I have so many thoughts about this topic. Hits close to where my homeschooling heart is these past few years. I have teenage boys.

    Grit. Yes. An admirable trait. Can it be learned? Most of the people I know who have grit endured neglect, failure, rejection, racism and/or poverty and kept their heads up stubbornly and repeatedly.

    Grit is not usually learned in the traditional classroom, but if a child is the first person in their family to work towards traditional academic success, I see this as taking a ton of grit. On the other hand, if a child is from a fourth generation phd family, then maybe their grit needs to be found outside the box.

    How are we in the homeschool world doing with grit? Honestly, I am highly uncomfortable with what I see around me. The past few years I have been looking for grit among the teens and young adults of our community and what I am seeing has made me change my own homeschooling approach. I think homeschoolers need to grapple with grit as much as traditional schools. Maybe more.

    I am looking for honest discussions about where homeschooling can improve on the grit scale. I could care less about what traditional schools are doing, we are not going back in, but I want to improve how my own homeschooling practices address grit. That’s why I read P’s blog.

    It’s not enough, in my opinion, to give our kids time to find passions. This is a great aspect of homeschooling surely, but I don’t see how the pursuit of a passion alone is a grit building experience. Put your passion to a test and see if you can break it and rebuild it or compete with it or be laughed at while defending it or figure out the money to pay for it and you might have some growth. Practice having your passion be ignored and still care about it. But we as parents have to give them the space for this to occur. It’s really hard.

    My kids take time for granted (theirs and mine). Unlimited time homeschooling and my parental attention has lead to a devaluation of time in our household. A learned behavior I am currently trying to work through by not always being available both financially and energetically.

    I have observed that over praising is rampant in our homeschooling community. It’s a problem for grit development. We purchase mentors for our kids. We buy adult’s time to focus intently on our kids and their pet projects, but how will our kids behave when they encounter adults who really just want them to be quiet and not annoying? To stiffle their talents and get to work? It worries me. I see the homeschooling world putting odd and quirky behavior on a pedestal. I meet Homeschooled teens all the time with special passions but absolutely no social skills and entitlement issues. Are they gritty? Not in the least.

    Homeschool parents hover over social conflicts.

    Homeschool parents drive their kids all over.

    Homeschool parents throw money at passions and individual pursuits hoping their kids will find a special latent talent.

    There is an over privileged air to much of the homeschooling world. We are well meaning but often tend to overthink and overfund. This is where I am currently trying to grow and step back in my homeschooling.

    My oldest child is 16. He has been rejected over one hundred times and he still wants to be an actor. I used to drive him to every audition. Lately he is taking LA public transport. I admire his grit and hope he gets lucky, but I have also started stepping back to make sure that he is funding and facilitating the project. I moved half way across the country to help him pursue his dreams. I moved half way across the country! Talk about lavished attention. Anyway, I am sure it would have been grittier to allow him to move to LA on his own at 18 with all the other beautiful dreamers. I try my best, but often I need to clean my own house first for cobwebs.

    Reply
    • CristenH
      CristenH says:

      Thank you, Abby. As a newbie homeschooler, I’ve noticed that I really want to hear success stories. Homeschooling feels like such an underdog endeavor, and much of the community seems to buffer itself with “Yes you can!” messages, not a lot of how things can go off the rails. I wonder quite a bit about overfunding and doing too much as a parent to spark/grow/sustain a passion. Comments like yours are immensely more useful to me, it turns out, than hearing about another lifelong unschooler who has been accepted to a competitive university. I applaud those kids and their families. Still, I am at the beginning of the road, and would greatly appreciate having at least a topo map for the rough patches and blind spots. Perhaps for us parents, we are taking on the grit ourselves, and not leaving enough of it to the kids?

      Reply
    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Been there done that. Loved Redondo Beach, I lived next to Veterans park for awhile. My kids had agents there, in fact everyone’s kids who are from the area have agents… :) I enjoyed your post, very thought provoking.

      Reply
    • Amy K.
      Amy K. says:

      Abby,

      This is the best comment I’ve ever read on this blog. We plan to start homeschooling this summer, and I’m excited about it… but your comments reflect a lot of my worries. I’m so thankful to finally get a cold splash of reality about homeschooling here… I know it’s not going to be sunshine and roses, and that my tendency towards hovering will be put to the test.

      Reply
    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      Thanks Abby for this excellent and insightful comment on many different aspects of homeschooling.
      This comment – “My kids take time for granted (theirs and mine). Unlimited time homeschooling and my parental attention has lead to a devaluation of time in our household. A learned behavior I am currently trying to work through by not always being available both financially and energetically.” – does really differentiate between learning in a school vs. homeschool environment.
      School does establish deadlines and does consider the amount of time to complete a task a factor in performance. The workplace does the same thing as do many other things in life outside of work. Regardless of the subject material being learned and regardless of the way it’s being learned, there is a point of diminishing returns and the ROI as measured by time (efficiency) is not favorable. I believe everybody learns in a non-linear fashion and that non-linearity will differ depending on subject material. I think the appeal of homeschooling is very good when viewed over the long-term. So getting back to time, time in a homeschooling environment needs to be valued and managed carefully by the homeschooler. Just some of my thoughts as I’m typing this out.

      Reply
    • Julia
      Julia says:

      I’m glad you mentioned privilege, Abby, because that is what’s often on my mind as I read here also. The reason schools suck in all the ways that are described here is because they were created to be accessible to everyone. Everyone. Homeschooling is basically taking a handful of kids back to the time when a select few were able to get an education, and have all the advantages of doing what works for individuals rather than what works when you’re trying to educate the masses with all of the unique problems and challenges every single child brings to the room. I don’t have a problem with homeschooling–I think it’s great. It’s great that there’s a growing group of parents pushing for what education should be. I keep coming back to this blog because you (Penelope) are talking about all of the right things for education. But the hard question is how do you make all of these right things happen in school, so that kids who don’t have all of those privileges can have access to them too? Since you changed the name of this blog to “Education”, I’m in danger of becoming a gadfly about this stuff, since I mostly kept my mouth shut when it was just focused on homeschooling.

      My job (literally) is to figure out how grit and related things can be taught in schools. I’ve really enjoyed this discussion. I wonder if some here struggling with the idea of “passion” and grit would feel better with the word purpose.

      Reply
      • Mark
        Mark says:

        You can’t make it happen in public schools unless public school parents lay the foundation at home. You can’t have it in public schools as long as disruptive students are allowed (forced) to come back to school over and over. You can’t have it in public schools as long as people presume that school, particularly as kids get older, needs to be for everyone. You can’t have it in public schools as long as public schools are jobs programs for teachers and administrators more than schools. You can have it in public schools as long as public schools have a captive audience based on geography. Basically, I don’t think you can have it in public schools — outside of particular areas where the parents have high expectations of the kids and the schools — as they are currently run.

        Reply
        • redrock
          redrock says:

          but I think we have come to expect too much of public school (and also from college). The idea originally was to teach reading, writing, and some arithmetic to everybody – and this is in my opinion a good idea. Only in the last few decades have we come to think of school as something to foster every individual ability and aspect of life. And then we are surprised that it is unable to fullfill this goal. We have to step back and move school to its original intention, teaching the foundations of knowledge. Grit, passion and all those attributes are wonderful and important – but I think it is the task of the parents/family/close relative to teach them. Same with college: the expectation now is that we teach everything, from the knowledge of the trade (e.g. mechanical engineering) to how to work in groups, and how to lead, and how to pursue ones dream and then have students who fit perfectly into the workforce. This cannot work – and I am a strong advocate to focus on building a strong foundation of knowledge and abilities which can then easily be taken to the next level in a more specialized work environment.

          Reply
          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Good points redrock. Reading, writing, arithmetic.. or just math now, was the focus of schools decades ago. But now that we are, for the most part, a wholly educated society, we don’t need schools to teach this as I think PT and others like myself here have said repeatedly; ie my oldest taught herself to read and write. What then, is the function of schools other than a holding place until they are “of age” to work and be productive members of society? This entire conversation about teaching career readiness or college readiness is an admission that school is ineffective, imho, and they are grasping at buzz words and cliches to appear relevant.

            So then it needs asking: Why are we holding kids back? Why the need to control every aspect of children’s lives?

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            Considering the high functional illiteracy rates quite a few kids will not be able to pick up reading and writing by osmosis. It is near to impossible to “pick up” something not modeled in some way in your environment. It is like the age old example of the people sitting in a cave and only seeing their environment as shadows on a wall – they have no way to know what is outside their limited frame of experience.
            And, I also hold the opinion that it is good to have a solid broad, basic education which includes geography, math, physics, chemistry, biology and history. Whether this is currently taught well in school is a different question.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        The best way to make public school successful is to take the middle class and upper class kids out of school. They don’t need school. Then public school can focus all the public’s resources on giving poor kids a fair shake.

        If the kids in public school are similar in their needs then the school is more likely to be able to help a wide swath of kids. We cannot teach every single type of child. Be we will be able to teach all the poor kids. And we’ll be able to provide other things those kids need like an adult support system, balanced meals, and safe, enriching place to go after school.

        Penelope

        Reply
        • Amy
          Amy says:

          This is an interesting idea that I know you have mentioned before. However, don’t you think that if all the medium-rich people pulled their children out of public schools that they would also demand their funding be pulled and redirected to benefit their own medium-rich kids? (I’m figuring that most of the really-rich people don’t have their kids in public schools right now anyway, but that there’s not enough of them to demand funding be stopped to public schools … but … if you throw in all the medium-rich people, I’m thinking funding would stop to the schools, whether they were awesome and able to focus on the poor kids’ needs better or not.) A good idea though : )

          Reply
          • Lisa
            Lisa says:

            If medium rich people start demanding anything else in terms of money or funding, I think I’m going to puke. But it wouldn’t really surprise me if that happened. People who are in favour of capitalism/colonialism are really in favour of it.

        • Commenter
          Commenter says:

          In my city, where public schools are a big poverty cake with a little privilege frosting, attending school or not is a political issue. I have been criticized on the basis that removing my (upper middle-class) kid from school removes a good example from the needy poor peers. Attending school appears to be a form of noblesse oblige among the suitably liberal, who congratulate themselves on the good work they do by sending their children to public school, and amply signal their moral superiority to those of us who don’t.

          PT suggests a different way of looking at the question: is sending your child to public school like having him eat free dinners at the soup kitchen or take donated clothes, removing resources intended for the needy? The budget for our school district is limited; I am paying into it whether my family uses this money or not. Am I not making a greater contribution to public education by leaving my tax money for poorer families to use?

          Reply
          • Amy K.
            Amy K. says:

            It depends on how your state calculates its school funding. Here in CA, funding is per pupil per day (average daily allowance).

            I think your situation (upper middle class and still in the big city; having tried public) is not common. I’m sure you knew families that bailed Boston for Newton or Cohasset or Wayland just in time for kindergarten. I don’t understand how PT’s plan (middle and upper middle all leave school) would play out in the suburbs. If you could snap your fingers and magically make this so, would affluent suburbs just have no schools? I don’t think those people would still pay high taxes. What about mixed districts–where 30-50 percent of students are on free lunch. Would there be more bussing?

          • Commenter
            Commenter says:

            Amy, you make many good points. My situation isn’t entirely common. I know many middle to upper-middle families in Boston who homeschool (with property values as they are…), but only a few who gave the BPS a shake before they cut out. Most had that plan from the get-go, because Boston is a wonderful place to homeschool.

            Of course, in the BPS, funding is differentiated according to the needs of the student. Students without special needs reduce the funding of the school, and vice versa – which is why the best school in the city, Boston Latin, has the lowest funding per pupil, and the “worst” schools have the highest funding.

            Yes, I have encountered many, many families who moved from Boston to Newton, Cohasset, or Wayland upon their oldest children turning five (though Norwood seems like the latest). The second group splits a year after, after a disaster in Kindergarten; the third splits when the AWC tests start tracking; the fourth is the exam school cut. Enrollment in the BPS tells the whole story; between first and sixth it loses 1,500 students. Since 1970 it’s lost about forty thousand.

            The funny thing is that I also know families from all these towns who moved for the schools, discovered that even the “good” schools actually suck, and are now homeschooling. So I feel like I took a shortcut, and I get to be a ten-minute train ride from the Conservatory.

            One of the interesting dynamics in the local area is how resistant the chi-chi suburbs are to housing development. They come right out and oppose any development of affordable properties, doing things like making the minimum lot size huge and zoning all multi-family dwellings right out of town. They do this openly to prevent families with children from moving to town, especially poor families with children, thereby keeping numbers low in their public schools.

            I am interested in the long-term effect of demographic trends more than the short-term effects of personal decisions. I know there are a lot of well-meaning upper middle-class liberals with kids in city public schools telling themselves they’re not so bad and it’s the right thing to do after all. There are many more who left for the burbs or the privates, and only a small percentage who stayed to homeschool. The city itself seems to be draining from the middle, with the schools leading the way.

            They just tore down an orphanage to build luxury housing in JP. I’m wondering how long it’ll be before they tear down a half-empty high school (my guess, English) to build luxury housing. The question then will be whether that improves or hurts the education of those kids still in the BPS. Increased property values means increased tax revenue. Is there some point at which the lines cross and the increase in tax revenue meets the decrease in public school students at ‘good enough for government work?’

  11. Amy
    Amy says:

    When thinking about kids who are living through poverty, neglect, abuse, horrible situations every day … what is the difference between “grit” and survival? Is “grit” something that only exists if you don’t really need it to survive?

    Reply
    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      “Angela Duckworth has advanced our understanding of how self-control and grit impact success more than most. When she applied to the PhD program at Penn, she wrote that her experiences working in schools left her with an unconventional view of school reform. “The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves,” she wrote. “Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying— but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. … To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”
      That’s the first paragraph of this article ( http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/02/angela-duckworth-grit/ ) dated 2/25/14 about Angela Duckworth’s research. The article by Shane Parrish also points to a book by Paul Tough titled ‘How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character’.
      Paul Tough says in his interview on Amazon for the book – “My wife and I became parents for the first time just as I started reporting this book, and our son Ellington is now three. Those are crucial years in a child’s development, and I spent a lot of them reading papers on the infant brain and studies on attachment and trauma and stress hormones, trying not to get too overwhelmed. In the end, though, this research had a surprising effect: it made me more relaxed as a parent. When Ellington was born, I was very much caught up in the idea of childhood as a race–the faster a child develops skills, the better he does on tests, the better he’ll do in life. Having done this reporting, I’m less concerned about my son’s reading and counting ability. Don’t get me wrong, I still want him to know that stuff. But I think he’ll get there in time. What I’m more concerned about is his character–or whatever the right synonym is for character when you’re talking about a three-year-old. I want him to be able to get over disappointments, to calm himself down, to keep working at a puzzle even when it’s frustrating, to be good at sharing, to feel loved and confident and full of a sense of belonging. Most important, I want him to be able to deal with failure. That’s a difficult thing for parents to give their children, since we have deep in our DNA the urge to shield our kids from every kind of trouble. But what we’re finding out now is that in trying to protect our children, we may actually be harming them. By not giving them the chance to learn to manage adversity, to cope with failure, we produce kids who have real problems when they grow up. Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.”
      I believe it is the responsibility of a school to “teach” grit. Actually, not just grit, but also other positive character traits and virtues that enhance their learning and future success. The reason I say that is because the kids are in school a good portion of the day and then they’re required to do homework at night. It doesn’t leave much time for activities outside of school to promote character. Consequently, there is an unfair balance of time between academics and the other activities that could be made available for the kids. Teach the kids how to learn and have it be fun so as to encourage them to be life-long learners. School isn’t working for too many kids and they’re dropping out. I think if we give them more character development tools, they’ll be able to handle the academics better.

      Reply
  12. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I too have thought about this topic. I find myself, from time to time wondering if I need to eventually deny my children what they want.

    Here is the thing, you can’t teach someone grit; at most you can explain the concept of grit and show examples of people who have used grit to achieve some greatness; big or small. This can be the immigrant who arrives to a new land with $50 in their pocket and achieves great success in life, the child of a poor single-parent family who refuses to repeat the pattern and is the first to go to college and make a life for themselves, the struggling musician who finally gets their big break.

    There is a recognizable pattern here; none of which includes a parent throwing money and every opportunity available to their child. It’s the child or person who makes the conscious choice to do something and dedicate themselves to it no matter how hard it is.

    This is the conundrum, I, like you, am providing all these amazing opportunities for my kids, maybe I am robbing them of any opportunity to ever learn personal grit in their own lives. If things only come easy to them, they ask and I give, am I passing on an entitlement mentality to them; which is the opposite of what I want.

    Another thing, probably the best time to “teach” this is (depending on the individual) around the ages 12-16…

    Food for thought PT, thanks again.

    Reply
  13. Anna M
    Anna M says:

    Responding to the last few posts about the doubts some of us homeschooling parents feel about this topic, and whether we are doing my kids a disservice by providing them opportunities. You really hit the nail on the head of what my main homeschooling doubt is. My kids are polite, well- socialized (according to me that means they have several friends, 2-3 really good friends, and a large neighborhood cohort to hang out with, they are polite to adults, and work well in a classroom setting whether in co-ops, scouts, church, etc.) doing well in school subjects, but I am worried about helping him too much- over funding, over mentoring mainly. Right now we pay for piano, baseball, and a full day of homeschool co-op classes, so on one hand I feel like that really isn’t much different from the public school kids, or the private school kids. I guess one the keys to grit is dealing with limited resources to achieve your goal. And just like public school parents that don’t want their kid to have a job since it might cut into their grades/ and extra curriculars, we do the same things we our kids. So I am guessing one of the keys to grit is having your teen have a job so they have to pay for what they want. Grit of course can be taught with our interests, but it probably more likely manifests itself with people trying to make a living. Just another thought that I haven’t thought out too much, but one of my problems with the whole “passionate” thing, is that most of us our passionate about a few things. Whereas I generally think about myself and hopefully my kids can get this mentality as well is, ” Someone else can do that, so can I!” Confident in their abilities to learn new, possible hard things. I am not saying those attitudes are opposite, but I do see a difference between having to be passionate about something to work hard at it, and thinking that they are a capable person that can do hard things to get the outcome that they desire. Thanks PT for this blog and this forum where we can talk about what we love about homeschooling, and what makes us nervous about our parenting path.

    Reply
    • Jessica
      Jessica says:

      This is where I don’t agree. Not having kids get a job and work for their extras. In my experience of friends, family, and extendeds those that did not have a ‘normal’ boring low paying job to begin with did not learn the valuable lesson of having to work and save for what you really want. I think that definitely teaches real world grit. Most kids in the upper middle class world that I knew missed out on understanding that basic value of how the world works and expected it to fall into their laps once they discovered their passions and so forth. Do your passion, but don’t forget that the world operates in a very real system and by holding ‘older’ children back from learning this is a huge disservice.

      Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Grit comes from just one thing being limited, not everything. So, you can be a millionaire kid who does gymnastics all day and has everything you could ever want — love, attention, money, friends, etc – but there is still only a six-person gymnastics team in the Olympics, so you need to grit to practice every day for 15 years to get that spot.

      Penelope

      Reply
  14. Jim
    Jim says:

    I think we need to stop using the word “passion” so much. Kids are variable, their interests change, and they tend to shift from one “passion” to another very comfortably. If your son is going to be a professional cellist then he will have to persevere through periods of commitment and practice long after the glow of passion has dimmed.

    Grit is the opposite of passion. It’s the characteristic that keeps you moving in the same direction when passion is absent. It’s the commitment to something that is worth doing because it has inherent value, not because it is stimulating.

    Reply
    • Alli
      Alli says:

      I would disagree that passion is consistently stimulating. Putting attention and awareness back on the objects of my true passions seems to bring me back to a place of interest and stimulation to move forward. I can easily lose focus and get distracted by other things which puts me back in “just passing the time” mode and looks like I’ve lost my passion. Really I’ve just lost my passion spark.

      My passion spark is intertwined with many other areas of life too, things like if I’m getting enough sleep, eating nourishing foods, feeling supported by my friends, etc. If I don’t actively and intentionally pursue these things first, then my passion spark does die out, and yes, I COULD push through (the inherent value argument) and I have had to at times (ie. school, working for other people).

      But I am believing more and more that each of us does have a distinct–and yes, often varied–directed interest in something, something that really doesn’t change that much, and something that will consistently make our eyes light up and our spirit come alive to talk about and be involved in.

      Interests vs. Passion…

      Reply
  15. Emm
    Emm says:

    Penelope,

    I enjoy your postings, as well as the contributions of your readers, because they are generally thought-provoking. I think we learn a great deal from being challenged about the notions we have accepted, as completely reliable, along the way.

    After reading the comments, what jumps out at me is that we’re not analyzing why elements of character, such as grit, do not develop well in that limited setting.

    If I remember my own experience growing up and attending schools, it is very clear to me that the whole experience was not about developing my character, it was about fulfilling other peoples’ expectations. If positive elements of character developed somewhere along the way, it was purely by accident, not as a result of anything that went on there, where personalities are stifled, and you learn to walk and talk by the boundaries of those things that will be permitted, not by the development of your interests or talents.

    The schools had an interest in my being present, but it was for their funding needs. The teachers desired my presence for much the same reasons. I had a couple of teachers along the way who seemed to actually care for the souls under their tutelage, but that was rare. My family had an interest in me attending because that’s what most folks did, lest the truant officer come around and make life difficult.

    Society had an interest in keeping children corralled somewhere, under supervision, lest we children congregate to play and explore the world. For some reason, these activities were just verbotten during the hours of 8-3 p.m. each day, and had to be limited to after-school hours and the weekend. To this day I am not sure why those hours are so dangerous to the childhood experience. Want to bring trouble upon yourself? Try taking your children to the park across the street from an elementary school during those hours.

    You want grit and a whole host of other valuable aspects of character? Then don’t put your children’s, or anybody else’s children in a neat, tidy little box. That’s the one thing that institution strives for, and accomplishes so remarkably well.

    Yes, we need rules (but not arbitrary ones); yes we need to impart to children that it is important that they respect themselves and demonstrate same for others, but there is a difference between equipping your child for success in life and hamstringing him/her with all sorts of stumbling blocks, false expectations, and false limitations.

    Provide them the tools, guide and correct where needed, and then get out of the way!

    Reply
  16. Karen
    Karen says:

    At one time I was very interested in the grit narrative, and to some extent, I do think that it informs us about skills our kids need to succeed.

    Unfortunately, the idea of grit has been borrowed by the corporate reformer crowd as part of the “No Excuses” mantra which increasingly allows schools to leave behind those with the highest needs. Learning disabilities? Too bad, Grit! Poverty? Too bad, grit! Some feel there are even undertones of racism in the push for “grit.” The best writer I’ve read re: grit critique is Paul Thomas: http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

    Like most issues in education, grit is not as straightforward as it looks.

    Reply
  17. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    We started looking for a teacher at age 4. We went through five teachers and he was basically self-taught until we found the current teacher at age 6.

    Penelope

    Reply
  18. Summer
    Summer says:

    My daughter is five and just got a violin (she begged for one for 2 yrs) she won’t go to sleep at night without it next to her bed but she is intimidated by the fact she can’t play like the classical radio station lol…
    Her father plays cello, guitar and piano so she has a musical house. Also my daughter is going on her second year of homeschooling. We use sonlight curriculum, with a mix of unschooling. Any advice on how your son self taught or things you did to build confidence and grit about his instrument?

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Self-teaching doesn’t really work for a string instrument. You develop too many habits that you can’t change as the music gets more difficult. This is especially true for young kids.

      My son could only do it because he could play anything he hears. I had no part in encouraging it. The teacher he has now made him completely start over, as if he knew nothing, because he had such terrible form and intonation from doing it by himself.

      Penelope

      Reply

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