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Should You Encourage Your Underachiever to Develop 'Grit'?

How to foster work ethic without discouraging or overwhelming your child

Published on: October 21, 2016

little girl holding her arms up to show off her biceps, with apples balanced on her arms

Have you ever noticed that parenting trends are like nutrition and health advice? First, there is the next big discovery, and then uh oh, we find out that there are kinks in the argument. Self-esteem was the end-all and be-all of the '80s, and then it was teaching to the learning style of the child. (Perhaps you didn’t know we were way over those big deals?) Unfortunately, parents often read about the exciting new sensations and then miss the less exciting analysis that follows months or even years later that exposes the flies in the ointment.

In this six-part series — this being the second installment — I’ll revisit common ideas about parenting that have been distorted, misinterpreted or oversimplified and give you the latest information. Here’s the latest:

Parenting myth no. 2: Kids who under-achieve should to be urged to develop grit.

Grit is “in” right now, but what is it? It’s passion and perseverance for meeting goals. Angela Duckworth, the researcher who coined the term and made it buzzy, studied “gifted” individuals and concluded that impressive achievement is the result of both talent and hard work.

Who doesn’t love a work ethic? This brings to mind the “10,000 hours concept” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. While even the idea that 10,000 hours is what it takes to become fabulously skillful has been brought into question, we can all agree that we value kids working hard on goals. We all know geniuses who threw away their gifts because they were under-motivated. It just sounds plain reasonable that talent + hard work = achievement.

So, what’s the problem? Duckworth’s interpretation of her original data has being heavily criticized. Furthermore, there’s a strong suspicion that grit is nothing more than conscientiousness, which researchers have known for decades is an extremely potent predictor of success.

Zorana Icevic and Marc Brackett, researchers at Yale University, examined predictors of school performance and found that good old conscientiousness and self-control explained the success among the students. Arthur Poropat, in a meta-analysis of about 80 other studies, also found that conscientiousness was the key strength (combined with ability) that predicted academic success. Joanne Rojas of the University of Kentucky found that grit measures had absolutely no predictive power in influencing creativity.

Why not stick with decades of research on conscientiousness and just skip this whole “new discovery” angle? Duckworth liked the re-branding of the concept to grit. (It does have a cool ring to it.) But still, is this just harmless re-branding? Or because of the marketing of a “new discovery” and its linkage with the elixir-word “success”, could it seduce parents and teachers into pressuring kids in new and hurtful ways?

Critics claim that pressuring kids to become grittier can create stress and backfire. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education on grit has concluded that grit pressure could have detrimental effects on students’ well-being. Grading kids on grit may be one more way to “blame the victim” and criticize disadvantaged students.

Duckworth has pointed out herself that if academic excellence (or another goal) isn't important to the individual — which is the case for tons of students who have already given up on school achievement — then the grit-game is off. She emphasized that she studied West Point cadets and spelling champions for that reason. They have already shown they have an interest in star performance. Grit (aka conscientiousness, industriousness, perseverance) takes them to the goal.

So how do you help kids develop an interest where they have none? Aristotle pondered this issue when he wanted to guide students in pursuing pleasures in the right things. So did my Juilliard-trained mom who tried to get her four children interested in piano lessons. Poor mom — she failed and we failed miserably. Apparently, passions aren’t necessarily genetic. 

The whole grit movement rests on an assumption that kids are motivated to work hard when they have a passionate interest in a goal. How adults can motivate children when they aren’t interested in goals is an entirely different question. It’s a question that has filled tomes for centuries.

The takeaway

Hard work is good. Many kids have built-in conscientiousness and already excel, thanks to parents who promote their children’s interests through lessons and provide stable circumstances for optimal learning and focusing on high goals. For those kids who lack these advantages, we should first do no harm, i.e. not induce more stress and anxiety. Second, we should hold off on promoting broad scale new programs on grit before they are research-tested.

Read more parenting myths

This six-part series will revisit common ideas about parenting that have been distorted, misinterpreted or oversimplified — and provide you with the latest information.

  • Myth no. 1: Time-outs harm kids.
  • Myth no. 3: Overpraise causes narcissism.
  • Myth no. 4: Focusing on resilience can compensate for a child's stress.
  • Myth no. 5: The growth mindset improves children’s academic performance by praising effort.
  • Myth no. 6: Rewards are bad for kids.

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