What are the keys to raising resilient kids to become gritty, resilient adults?
What is it that gets you out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to run in 40-degree rain, or huff it to the gym for 90 minutes of self-imposed brutality? It’s your dedication to a goal, and it’s the same thing that keeps your butt in your chair at work to finish a presentation, solve a case, or close a sale. In a word, it’s grit—the ability to delay gratification and endure suffering so you can accomplish something big—and none of us were born with it. That tenacity, perseverance, and ability to stay focused on the prize is borne of years of life lessons, practice, and guidance.
Now it’s time to pass that wisdom down and raise resilient kids. All you need is 20 minutes to share your secrets and 20 years to sit back and watch the magic work, right? Ah, if only.
Fortunately, a battalion of experts has been toiling away on how to pass down your best character traits, and while the research is still evolving, many of them agree on a core set of strategies that will help you raise kids with grit.
1. Empathize with your child’s struggles
Roadblocks in life come from both the outside (like the technical difficulty of riding a bike for the first time) and inside (the voice in your head saying you’re not good enough to do it), says Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids. Before we can help our children work through any challenge, we have to see the problem through their eyes and understand that while it may seem tiny to us, it's huge to them.
“We need to allow children to feel whatever they feel, starting from when they’re babies,” Markham says. “We don’t want to tell kids, ‘Oh, that’s not worth getting upset over.’ Whatever they feel is OK.”
That doesn’t mean you leave them to wallow in frustration, sadness, or feelings of failure, she adds. It’s our role as parents to help them work through those feelings and learn from them, to say, "This is hard but you can do it, and I’m here to help." Be patient as you help a kid work through daunting tasks.
2. Help them set goals
This can be as simple as eventually riding that bike around the block without stopping, or finishing one paragraph of the book report each night of the week. By having a goal and chipping away at it, children start to learn that sticking with something will earn them a sense of pride and accomplishment.
But remember who you’re dealing with. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Perseverance, notes that it’s normal for kids to flit from one interest to the next. Far from it being a personality deficit, a desire for novelty and a low threshold for frustration may be an evolutionary benefit early in life.
So allow your children to experiment with different interests and set new and attainable goals as their passions flip from art to skateboarding to horseback riding. “Eventually, with the right guidance and experience, children will see that achieving excellence takes time,” Duckworth and the study co-authors wrote.
3. Challenge them to solve small problems
Imagine a child growing increasingly frustrated as he or she tries to open a tricky gate latch. Neither of the two knee-jerk parental reactions—opening it for him or telling him not to be upset about it—will help, says Markham.
“You want to say, ‘Well, that latch really is hard, isn’t it? Let’s work on it together to see if we can solve it,’” she says. When we do tasks for our children, from math homework to building a model airplane, they learn only that adults are more competent, which over time makes them feel smaller. But if you lead them to help themselves, they learn that with enough work, they can accomplish things that seemed daunting before.
The caveat here is that there are times when kids just aren’t ready to do something, and you have to learn to recognize that. The middle of a tantrum is not the time to make a child try anything new. But once the child calms down, Markham says, “Get out the oil and say, ‘Hey honey want to come out and help me fix that gate so it opens?’”
4. Foster a growth mindset
Stanford psychology professor and researcher Carol Dweck, Ph.D., distinguishes two types of people: Those with a “growth mindset,” who believe that people learn from mistakes, and those with a “fixed mindset,” who think people are innately good or bad at something.
In a landmark 1998 study on raising resilient kids have appreciate the value of work, Dweck showed that children who were routinely praised for intelligence (“You’re so smart!”) gave up on hard tasks sooner than those who were lauded for working hard to achieve something. A child who believes he or she can get smarter has a growth mindset, and they internalize the notion that effort—not natural ability—is the key to success. So instead of saying Brian is good at violin because he has talent, emphasize how much his hard work is paying off.
5. Nurture and forgive
In a study analysis published in the Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development, Nancy Eisenberg, Ph.D., concluded that “warm, supportive parenting, rather than cold, directive parenting, appears to predict higher levels of effortful control.” Translation: Kids’ with nurturing parents have a better ability to control impulses and stick with undesirable projects.
6. Focus on the effort, not the result
As hard as it might be, resist the urge to shower praise for good performance, Markham says. Repeatedly applauding children turns them into praise junkies, completing tasks just so they can hear how well they did. And when you eventually say, “Oops, you got that one wrong,” the child will feel stupid. “They think they failed,” she says. Instead, say, “Wow you’re working so hard on this!” Or, “See what you can do when you focus?” You can still share in their excitement without implying that your love for them hinges on how well they perform.
7. Preach—and model—perseverance
Children learn values through what they see in their parents and what you do as a family. That means showing a regular, upbeat commitment to whatever is important to you—race training, music practice, yard work, volunteering, etc.—and giving your kids the support they need to commit to their pursuits. So the next time you’re gearing up for an endurance competition, be sure to talk out your training plan to show your kid how you plan to beat your PR.
8. Build upon failures
Remind your children that the only people who never fail are those who never try. Speak openly about the failures in your life, past and present, and what you did to overcome them.
In his book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, Paul Tough describes a chess teacher at a public school in Brooklyn who built a national-champion team from a group of low-income students. The teacher’s primary technique was to analyze students’ games with them, talking frankly and in detail about mistakes they had made. This helped them see what they could have done differently and showed them that each loss was a learning opportunity. This, Tough writes, motivated them to apply new skills to the next match, changing not only the students’ chess game but their approach to life.
9. Ditch the bribes
When trying to motivate your child to do something, avoid the temptation to offer a reward. (“If you finish your chores I’ll give you ice cream!”)
Education expert Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, says children view rewards as approval, which becomes mixed up with parental love. So failure to receive the rewards can lead to low self-esteem and a cascade of bad decisions in life. The other problem with rewards, Kohn writes, is that they shift the child’s motivation toward quick payouts, and that undermines your goal of raising a self-confident, self-motivated human. (As with rewards, threats of punishment can work in a similar way.)
The better—although much harder and slower—approach is to help kids see that by doing the task, they’ll create a better reality for themselves, like a cleaner room to play in, a better shot at their college of choice, or a starting position on the sports team.
10. Help them survive discomfort
It sounds strange, but when children believe that their personalities are malleable, they perform better in uncomfortable social situations. The reason, likely, is that they understand that short-term suffering can lead to long-term self-improvement. Last year, a Psychological Science study of high school freshmen showed that those who were told they could change certain social traits in themselves—like making friends, becoming better at small talk, or self-advocating—showed lower stress levels when speaking in front of their classmates and solving challenging math problems on the spot.
Lead study author David Yeager, Ph.D., from the University of Texas at Austin, said in a statement that teenage stress is often rooted in the thought that “if it’s hard now, it’s going to be hard forever.” Freeing teens of that despair helps empower them to work through problems.