The Power of Grit

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We’re told as young adults, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  But try telling that to a toddler. My nineteen-month-old son recently tripped and fell (like he does any other day) but this time something was different. It turned out he had fractured his ankle and would have to wear a “walking” cast for two weeks. The two weeks began, as expected, with a lot of anger and frustration.  He wanted to be held constantly and would have intense emotional outbursts that I had never seen before.  Then gradually, and by his own determination, he started walking.  I could see his pride and confidence increasing by the second. By the end of the two weeks he had grown in so many ways.  It was incredible to watch his resilience and his ability to work through hardship emerge, especially at such a young age.  There is a term for this resolve and strength of character and it’s called “grit.”  Wanting to explore the concept of “grit” further, we turned to Vicki Hoefle, parenting expert and author of The Straight Talk on Parenting, for some invaluable insight on how best to assist our children in developing this invaluable trait.

-Maggie Tancred, The Mother Company


Interview by Julia Storm, Director of Production, The Mother Company

What is grit?

For me grit is the ability to bounce back from life’s ups and downs. It’s knowing that you have what it takes to recover from the things that get us down. I think when we have that confidence in ourselves we are much more likely to engage fully in life, to take healthy risks and to say “yes” to invitations. Without that confidence that we can bounce back we live a much more cautious life.

Why is grit so important for a child and for his/her future as an adult?

The easy answer is that life is frustrating. Just about the time you figure one thing out there’s a new problem in front of you. As an adult, I’m fairly certain that life gets more difficult between eighteen and eighty, not less. The confidence that comes from knowing that whatever obstacle you’re faced with, you have what it takes to get through it, starts at a very, very young age. Think about little kids who first exhibit grit when they decide that they’re going to stand up –  regardless of how many times they fall down and how many times they cry. It’s the desire to master something simple that propels children forward. You can see the excitement and determination in their eyes. As that sense of mastery continues from standing up, to feeding yourself, to getting yourself dressed, every single one of those small accomplishments helps a child see herself as a competent, curious, engaged person, and that becomes a lifestyle. It becomes a view of yourself and a view of the world that says, “No matter what the world throws at me, I have what it takes to overcome.”

What happens to the child that is really intelligent or even gifted, but somehow lacks in this quality of grit? How does this relate to the concept of “growth mindset?”

Once a child is described as being “gifted” at whatever skill, there is a cap that is put on top of that. Where is the child to go from there? It implies that they had nothing to do with their success, that it wasn’t a matter of hard work or focus, so there is no real ownership. The research suggests that these kids begin to back out of life, to back away from new challenges and to see themselves in very limited and constricted ways. From my own experience, I’ve seen these kids really show some obvious discouragement in life – feeling that their brains aren’t enough to overcome some basic daily obstacles that their peers seem to be overcoming with much more ease and grace.

The book ‘Mindset’ by Carol Dweck certainly helped all of us reformulate our ideas about what success means. So a “fixed mindset”  mentality says, “you’re gifted in math,” “you’re a gifted musician,” “you’re a gifted soccer player,” etc. With this mindset the child sees himself in very narrow ways. A “growth mindset” implies that if you work hard, if you work differently, if you’re willing to ask for help, you will continue to grow and to get better at whatever it is that you invest in. There is no cap to it, so a child can see himself starting as a beginner and progressing forward. In this model, a child’s enthusiasm and willingness to work at something might then increase the odds that she will be more interested in trying other new things as well, things she may never have explored. This goes far beyond just helping children expand their life experience; it becomes a way of being, a way of life. I believe a “growth mindset” promotes emotional health, physical health and social health for anybody at any age.

What can parents do to help their children develop tenacity without pushing them until they resent you?

Follow your child’s lead, always. Kids have the best information if we know how to listen and ask questions. They can help us parent them in a way that will allow them to blossom and realize their full potential. It’s a tricky balance of being both supportive when we see that they are interested in something, but also allowing them to struggle. There is a tendency to think that good parents have happy kids. My experience is just the opposite. Kids who are really engaged in life have emotions that run the gambit from joyful exuberance to miserable temper tantrums and that is a sign  that they are really throwing themselves into everything that they do. I think over time what happens is that they find that balance of highs and lows and that balance will get you through life. For parents, the challenge is to allow the normal frustrations, rejections, judgments and embarrassments to play an equally important role in the development of the child.

Sometimes kids see a challenge and if it feels too overwhelming, they want nothing to do with it. How far do I push my child when they don’t seem to want to attempt the task at hand?

A parent will often jump to the end result, “Once you do this you are going to love it!” and they disregard where the child is in that moment. Children don’t have the capacity to jump ahead like adults do.  They live in the moment, and in that moment they feel resistant and their parents are ignoring them. What happens is that their resistance can build up from the fact that they’re not being listened to.

What I suggest to parents is that whenever a child resists trying something, parents should stop and say to the child, “Tell me what you’re most worried about. What do you imagine might happen if you (fill in the blank)? Where does that feeling live in your body?” Often times, children will talk themselves through whatever the fear is that makes them think, “I don’t want to do this.” As parents, we dangle some future awesome experience in front of the kids but when they don’t feel the thrill after the first lesson or they can’t hit the basket after the first practice, they are left feeling frustration, and the trust for their parents is called into question. If a parent is willing to slow down and explore all of the scary feelings that the child is having, they will almost always go back to a moment in the child’s life when they did have the confidence to try something new and then they’ll give it a go. That’s the balance I’m talking about – support, but also accept that right now your child is uncomfortable.

I’ll often say to kids, “Do you ever remember feeling this way before in your life?” Then if they say yes, I’ll say, “So how did you get through that? What did it take for you to do it last time? Ok, what will it take for you to do this now?” And the child can remember and call upon that past experience. This activates the child’s natural grit without you having to go in and say, “Listen you’re doing this whether you like it or not.”

How does praise help or hinder the process of developing “Stick-to-it-ness?”

I do not use praise. I don’t teach it. I don’t think it’s been proven to be all that helpful. I believe people who use the word “praise” and have had success with it are actually using “encouragement,” but are not familiar with the real concept of the word. A kid who gets straight A’s in math doesn’t need any praise. They already know how to do math and they’re already good at it. Why praise something that the child is already good at? It’s also not a great motivator. Praise sets up so many dangerous side effects:

  1. The child stops believing you because you think everything they do is perfect, then when it isn’t perfect you have to lie about it, so now they don’t trust you because they know you’re lying.
  1. It puts them at risk to predators who know your kid is a praise junkie.
  1. It teaches children to look to the outside world for confirmation that they are a good human being rather than assessing their own moral fabric.

When we wonder about why a generation of young people are not driven more by a moral compass it’s because they were taught to look to the outside world for feedback. If people liked what they were doing it was fine and they could do it, destroying the internal moral compass. I do think encouragement plays a huge part in every person’s life. When we’re feeling down we need people to remind us that we have been here before and we have risen above. That’s where, as a parent, showing empathy and reminding the child that they have been in a place like this before and had what it took to overcome is so helpful. It’s a dance that we do with our children where we’re there with them but they are pulling themselves up, which means that when we’re not there, they know how to pull themselves up and that is far more important than saying “You’re the cutest,” “you’re the best,” “ you’re the smartest.”

Do you have some tips for parents who are trying to instill more grit in their young children?

1. Life will get harder between eighteen and eighty so making life pretty right now is a disservice. Being helpful to your children is often times a hindrance, so look beyond this moment – look into the future.

2.  Allow for frustration, anger, sadness, rejection and embarrassment. Those are all part of the human experience. To deny a child an opportunity to get familiar with those feelings insures that they will struggle with their emotional health when they are adults. So look at those times when they are having a negative emotion and appreciate what a gift it is.

3. Find a way to support your kids by asking questions instead of going automatically to praise.

The overarching message is this; our job is to ensure that our kids grow into adults who are emotionally healthy, feel connected to their families and want to make a positive contribution to their communities.  In order to do that, we must help them navigate the tricky terrain of life and support the development of character traits necessary to thrive as healthy adults.   We can use everyday experiences to help them develop what I refer to as mental muscle, or grit.  We can make it a gentle and slow process that is filled with both mystery and magic.


Vicki Hoefle is the author of Duct Tape Parenting and The Straight Talk on Parenting, a parent educator and coach, and a nationally recognized speaker. Trained in Adlerian Psychology with 25 years of experience helping thousands of families and raising five children, she shares her wealth of invaluable experience leading parent education programs worldwide.


The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series,  along with our beautiful children’s booksappsmusichandmade dolls, and more.

Posted in: Expert Advice, Emotions, Learn