There’s a New Four-Letter Word Getting Lots of Buzz

Posted on October 1st, 2012, 0 Comments

The word is grit.

Grit is a new psychological category defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” It’s related to willpower (the subject of a recent posting), but it’s not the same thing.

Gritty individuals have more than the self-regulation in willpower. They have zest and persistence as well. Teens with grit are focused less on short-term intensity and more on stamina. They believe in long-term goals and don’t give up in the face of difficulty or disappointment.

So how gritty do you think your teen is? The Short Grit Scale can give you some idea. The scale was developed and validated by Penn psychologist and researcher Angela Duckworth.

Duckworth and other researchers have been studying qualities like grit, perseverance, self-confidence, curiosity, and passion for several years now. They call these qualities “non-cognitive skills,” and they believe that these skills have been undersold. Now, they’re not saying that smarts don’t matter. But they’re arguing that when it comes to how children succeed, this set of non-cognitive skills is at least as important as the narrow band of cognitive skills measured on ability and achievement tests, including the ACT and SAT.

Although non-cognitive skills are harder to measure on tests, researchers are increasingly pointing to how much grit and the related qualities (which most of us call character) matter in predicting which students will flourish. What’s more, studies have shown that while there may be a genetic component to character traits, they are not fixed. Instead, they can be taught, learned, and developed.

How can you help your teen build grit?

There is not yet a curriculum proven to make teens grittier, but there is quite a bit of evidence suggesting that the following can help:

Nudge your teen to do some looking into the future. Teens who regularly think about what they want to do with their life and what kind of person they want to become, have a better sense of direction and are, thus, less likely to get off-track. These teens don’t see going to college as an end in itself. Instead they’re charting a course that includes some ideas of what they might do for their work life. This doesn’t mean that they’re firmly committed to a specific career track. They may change their mind and head in a different direction more than once. But at any given time, they can articulate where they think they’re heading – at least for now.

Teens with this type of guiding purpose tend to work hard at school and to take hobbies and other activities seriously. They also tend to take charge of problems and persevere.

So nudge your teen to look into the future by regularly (a couple times a year) asking them to think about their current interests and strengths. Encourage them to make lists of the things they like to do, the things they like to learn, and the things they value, as well as the things they’re good at – perhaps even better at than most kids their age. And then talk with them about how their combination of interests and strengths might be used in a career someday.

Encourage your teen to think of academic achievement as a marathon. Most teens have a shortsighted view of academic achievement. They think of tests, papers, and projects as a series of unrelated sprints that they either win or lose at. When school is viewed this way, the intensity and the pressure to win can become unbearable.

From a longsighted view, though, academic achievement looks like a marathon. From this viewpoint, each test, each paper, each project your teen works on represents but one of many laps to their long-term goals. And each lap offers new opportunities for them to develop the non-cognitive skills they need for sustained high performance – learning how to better pace themselves, developing better study strategies, discovering the value of perseverance, and building resilience.

Give your teen a chance to learn how to handle disappointment and failure. We parents often think our job is to do everything we can to shield our children from adversity. Yet when children are overly protected from hardship, they don’t get a chance to develop the ability to overcome failure. So if we want our kids to have long-term success, we need to first be willing to let them do some struggling. This is a thread that runs throughout How Children Succeed, Paul Tough’s brand-new book about character. (You can hear the author talk about his book in an interview with MPR host Kerri Miller here.)

So rather than thinking of yourself as your teen’s protector, consider acting as their safety net instead. Being a safety net means paying attention so that you’re there when they fall – to comfort them and reassure them that they can indeed bounce back. And then you’ll want to help them look honestly at where things went wrong, how they contributed to the problem, and what they need to do differently next time.

Be your teen’s historian. You can help your teen bounce back stronger and build resilience after a fall by reminding them of obstacles they’ve faced before and successfully overcome. When they’re feeling discouraged or overwhelmed, you can listen to their worries and then remind them of their past successes under similar emotional circumstances.

By helping your teen build grit, you’re not just helping them succeed at school. You’re also nurturing the kind of stamina they need to have real-life success.

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