What Activities Encourage Grit in Children?

This is a topic we invariably come back to time and again – grit. I’m not going to talk about why it’s important because I think we can all agree that having a bit of grit is always beneficial. The question on the minds of most parents is probably this: how do we encourage grit in our children?

Unfortunately, grit isn’t a neat little package that you can wrap up in a box and hand over to your child. It’s complicated. But before we dive into it again, let’s review what we already know (click the links for a refresher on the content discussed previously)…

In the past, we looked at building grit by working on the 5 characteristics of grit:

  1. Courage
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Follow Through
  4. Resilience
  5. Striving for Excellence

We’ve poured over Angela Duckworth’s discussions on grit and distilled it down to:

  1. Having a Growth Mindset
  2. Developing Self-Control
  3. Committing to Deliberate Practice
  4. Following “The Hard Thing” Rule

We have observed the connection between grit and adversity and how grit ties in with mental toughness. We also know that mental toughness can fizzle out without the right conditions. No matter how tough you are mentally, it will be harder to remain so if your internal resources are depleted from fatigue, poor health, or other environmental factors. We can provide the right support for encouraging mental toughness through resilience training. Also referred to as positive education, these conditions allow our children to flourish in life:

  • Positive Emotion
    • the ability to be optimistic and view the past, present, and future in a positive perspective.
    • joy, inspiration, gratitude, hope, pride, serenity, amusement, curiosity, awe, love.
  • Engagement – the ability to participate in a project that entirely absorbs us in the present moment.
  • Relationships – the need for connection, love, intimacy, and a strong emotional and physical interaction with others.
  • Meaning – having purpose in life.
  • Accomplishment – having goals and ambition that give us a sense of satisfaction when we achieve them.

What else can we add to this profile on grit? Here are a few things I’ve picked up from Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverence

Encourage Grit Through Adversity

I know we’ve talked about how we can encourage grit through adversity, but we missed a couple of pretty important qualifiers. Throwing adversity at your children isn’t going to make them gritty unless you have taken the following into account:

  • The adversity must be pretty potent – minor day to day inconveniences don’t cut it.
  • They must experience mastery while enduring the adversity – so they are learning “I can do this. I can succeed in that.”

If your child has too many experiences of adversity without mastery, it can lead to learned helplessness in the future. All these negative experiences can condition the mind to believe that there is nothing that can be done to change the situation even if it is not true.

Encourage Grit During Adolescence

“If you experience adversity – something pretty potent – that you overcome on your own during your youth, you develop a different way of dealing with adversity later on.” – Steve Maier, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverence

In a study of adolescent rats, Steve Maier gave two groups of rats an adverse experience with the following conditions:

  • Group 1: received electric shocks, but were able to turn it off by turning a small wheel with their paws until the next trial.
  • Group 2: received electric shocks that they could not turn off.

When the rats from both these groups became adults, they were all subjected to uncontrollable electric shocks that they could not turn off. They were subsequently observed in a social exploration test with these findings:

  • Group 1: were more adventurous
  • Group 2: behaved timidly

In other words, the rats from Group 1 grew up more resilient because of their positive adverse experience during adolescence. Group 2’s negative adverse experience during adolescence has set them up for the condition known as “learned helplessness”.

So those mastery experiences of adversity that we mentioned earlier? They should take place during adolescence to increase the potency of the message – “I have the power to change this”.

Encourage Grit with Early Failure

While it is important that our children learn to weather adversity and emerge triumphant, they also need to learn how to manage failure. Kids who cruise through life winning all the time will struggle to pick themselves up again when they experience their first real failure. They grow up to be “fragile perfects” – vulnerable high achievers who know how to succeed but not how to fail.

And that’s the problem. Everyone will experience failure at some point in their lives. They need to know how to bounce back from it. The longer it takes for this first failure to happen, the harder it is to learn how to bounce back. That’s often what happens with “fragile perfects” – by the time they get their first failure, they’ve been on a winning streak for such a long time that it can be devastating.

One of the difficulties with introducing failure is doing it in a way that is natural. We don’t want to force our children into an impossible situation just to make sure that they get the experience of failing. However, they do need to feel the discomfort of standing on the precipice of potential failure and experience the occasional setback that will help them build resilience for future obstacles. We can do that by getting them involved in some healthy competition.

Encourage Grit Through Experience

encourage grit through experience
Image Source: Pinterest

Probably the most frustrating thing about grit is that it is difficult to teach through words alone. You cannot talk your kids into “grittiness”, they have to experience it for themselves and make their own connections. Sure you can explain how the brain works and how experiences can shape it positively or negatively, but the aha! moment will only arrive when something happens to them. Grit is unfortunately one of those things in life that must be learned the hard way.

Easy Pickings to Encourage Grit

So we’ve talked about what should happen and when. The next question is: “how?” As a parent, I want an easy answer – the ones like “do this and your child will get gritty”. Even though I know it can’t ever be as simple as that, I have come across some easy pickings that we can all implement with some measure of confidence that they will help.

Sports

A study comparing athletes to non-athletes revealed that athletes have higher levels of mental toughness compared to non-athletes. Since we have sort of equated mental toughness with grit, we can extrapolate that getting our children involved in sports is one potential avenue for building grit.

Competition

To add a little more “bang for your buck”, you can encourage your child to get involved in competitive sports. As we mentioned earlier, healthy competition provides a natural environment to experience failure. Even if it isn’t competitive sports, any other form of competition can be good, too.

Outward Bound Camp

Outward Bound is a program that sends adolescents into the wilderness with experienced leaders for a few weeks where they are expected to learn how to survive. The purpose of the program is to use outdoor challenges to develop that ‘undefeatable spirit’. And it works. Studies have shown that Outward Bound increases independence, confidence, assertiveness, and the belief that what happens in life is largely under your control. In fact, these benefits increase in the six months after the camp is over.

Extra-curricular Activity Follow-Through

Angela Duckworth’s research revealed that you could identify gritty kids based on the following:

  • They were involved in extra-curricular activities for at least two years. It could be any activity – sports, music, volunteer work, a part time job, academic activities, etc.
  • In those two years, they had made advancements in their activity – e.g. being awarded “employee of the month” in an after school job.
  • The more significant the advancement, the grittier they were.

It doesn’t matter what activity your child chooses as long as he sticks to it for at least two years and makes progress in those two years. The practice of sticking to the activity and advancing in it is an opportunity for your child to exercise her grit muscles and make them stronger. In essence, this is what the whole “hard thing rule” is based on.

Encourage Grit - Outward Bound
Image Source: Quote Fancy

So there you have it – not perfect answers but at least a direction to work towards.

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Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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