It turns out the greatest indicator of success is not IQ, family wealth, good looks, or artificially-induced “self-esteem,” but something Angela Lee Duckworth calls “grit,” which is the ability to persevere at working hard despite the failures and challenges that confront us on a daily basis.
Imagine being a child whose parents’ ongoing commentary is, “You’re so smart. Look what you’ve done! You are amazing!” At first, such adulation might make you feel good, particularly when you’re two years old. Pretty soon, however, you realize that others are as smart or smarter than you and you begin doubting your parents. You fear being found out, which often leads to a lack of motivation. You unconsciously fear that any aspiration might lead to disappointment and embarrassment when you are found to be lacking your parents’ high assessment and expectations.
“I better not try this new sport. I don’t want to look like a beginner.”
“I’m not going to study for this test. It’s too embarrassing If I study and do poorly. Instead I’ll point out how stupid the teacher is.”
“I’ll make it look like it’s my decision not to try. I would hate to appear average after trying.”
Now imagine being a child whose parents never give their approval and in fact spend most of their time criticizing you. It would make you feel angry, depressed and horrible about yourself. It might, however, lead you to try harder to win their approval. Yet if you do succeed in the outside world and even if you do eventually get their approval, you will still have that inner voice that never thinks you’re good enough. Again you live with a fear of being found to be inadequate because no matter what external success you achieve, you can’t get rid of the feeling that you are inferior. Living with an inner critic that says you’re worthless is a painful way to go through life.
What kind of parenting then is likely to foster your children’s grit and not leave them with a tyrannical inner critic? Inborn personality traits and genetics do influence how a particular child grows and develops in a particular environment. In general, however, a child is likely to develop self-motivation, healthy self-esteem, and an ability to persevere through frustration and failure under the following conditions:
1. The parent does not excessively judge the child in a negative manner, particularly in a general way, “That’s terrible. You’re lazy. You’ll never get it right.”
2. The parent does not lavish implausible praise upon the child, particularly in a general way, “That’s amazing. You’re fantastic. You’re the best, the smartest, the best-looking.”
3. The parent does give occasional specific constructive guidance. “Try moving your arm like this when you throw the ball.” “Maybe you want to try this,” or “Approach it this way.”
4. The parent does give specific statements of approval on occasion, such as “It looks like you worked hard for those good grades.” “That color blue gives the painting a feeling of peace.” “I enjoyed listening to your speech.” Note that if approval occurs twenty times a day, it will feel as though the parent is trying to boost the child’s self-esteem. The child will infer from this that the parent thinks the child needs such boosting because the parent thinks he or she is inadequate. In other words, constant efforts to give approval backfire.
5. The family appreciates hard work more than natural talent. “I appreciate the time you spent helping me.” “I admire your persistence.”
6. When there’s a setback or failure, the parent does not over-react either negatively or positively. For example, the parent does not say, “Oh no. I knew this would happen! You should have studied harder!” Or “Don’t worry honey, you really are the best. I’ll help you next time.” Instead the parent remains neutral and caring, but not over-involved. “I’m sure you will figure out what you need to do to make it work.”
7. Most importantly, the child grows up with a belief that effort and practice lead to improvement, rather than with a belief that the IQ and talents you’re born with are fixed. Simply learning about current research on the neuro-plasticity of our brain encourages a growth mind-set, which, in turn, is proven to promote hard work and self-motivation.
Self-motivation, self-control and self-possession are key to developing courage and grit. A person loses motivation when others push too much, get too involved or overreact. The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand, as Vince Lombardi, the great football coach, has put it. Ultimately, failure and being undeterred by failure are prerequisites to success in life, for Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts. ~Winston Churchill.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD