When my oldest son was a toddler, the odds were against him. Doctors painted grim pictures of Ted’s future because of the seizures that attacked him multiple times per day. As most parents would, we went to great lengths to give him what we thought needed to learn to play and live like any other toddling boy. We scheduled an array of therapy sessions, learned sign language, encouraged him to jump and run and stack blocks and put together puzzles. We set high expectations.
By four, Ted was two years seizure-free and developing better than his doctors predicted. One hot summer day on the playground, he saw another boy make an arm-fart. The sun was shining and the trees rustling their thick manes of leaves. And Ted’s eyes glimmered in the awesome reflection of that boy’s arm-fart. I watched as Ted slowly slid his hand to his own armpit to cast his first line into the depths of body sounds. And then… nothing. Failure.
According to researchers, it is that kind of failure that should help our kids learn the keys to success. Some of history’s greatest accomplishments came only after disappointments. And yet, we all know that not everyone bounces back after failure. Angela Duckworth won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013 for her research on “grit” – what she defines as a winning combination of goal directedness, motivation, self-control, and positive mindset. Grit, according to Duckworth, is a key factor in predicting success and more important than talent in many cases.
As parents, we see when our kids have Grit and we see when they give up. What can we do to help them cultivate Grit?
- Start Early. When they cry as infants, we soothe. This soothing calms anxieties and develops the neural circuitry to learn to self-soothe and eventually self-regulate. As they get older, set reasonable limits and enforce them with empathy. “I know you want to eat 76 cookies. They are delicious. But two is all we are going to eat right now.” This will develop internal limits and teach resilience. Children have to be taught that they don’t always get what they want – and it’s okay.
- Teach Them to Achieve Goals. Household chores are a great vehicle for goal achievement. Start with stacking books. Then picking up laundry. One step at a time, teach your kids how to size up a project, identify steps to achieve the goal, and how to deal with obstacles along the way. We use the same system for finishing a puzzle as toddlers to coach our kids in writing research papers as middle-schoolers.
- Teach the Growth Mindset. Tell your children how it works. “So you want to arm-fart? All right, it’s going to take time to teach your brain to work your body to make those awful noises. With practice, your brain will learn. You have the ability to be smarter, stronger, and better at whatever you choose!”
- Enjoy Their Joy. Find out what your kids are passionate about and be their number one fan! With your support in their passions, they will learn to persevere and succeed by facing the challenges, learning through failures, and experiencing success. Most importantly, your genuine care in their happiness will help them to develop an internal happiness that will help them stay the course in the face of disappointment.
Thankfully for Ted, we are gritty parents. It took a full year of Ted trying to arm-fart. The day that first sound emerged from his hand and armpit is one of many proud moments. To this day, we use “The Year of the Arm Fart” as an example for our other kids and a reminder to Ted that he is capable of whatever goals he sets his mind to achieve. With Grit like that, the sky is the limit!