Personal Observations of Grit in infants, toddlers, and young children

I have now been a parent for more than 6 years. I have watched my kids grow up from peanuts to kids that play together, laugh together, and work together. That is one part of the inspiration for this article.

The other part is another article I read on Medium, one which discussed how a certain character attribute called “grit” plays a part in personal achievement. I thought I clapped for that article. Didn’t. I thought I had bookmarked that article. Didn’t. Articles are notoriously hard to find by search in Medium. That article which cannot be named by myself at this time did cite a study by Angela Duckworth.

The summary of that study reads as follows:

The importance of intellectual talent to achievement in all professional domains is well established, but less is known about other individual differences that predict success. The authors tested the importance of 1
noncognitive trait
: grit. Defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, grit accounted for an average of 4% of the variance in success outcomes, including educational attainment among 2 samples of adults (N ⫽
1,545 and N ⫽ 690), grade point average among Ivy League undergraduates (N ⫽ 138), retention in 2 classes of United States Military Academy, West Point, cadets (N ⫽ 1,218 and N ⫽ 1,308), and ranking in the National Spelling Bee (N ⫽ 175). Grit did not relate positively to IQ but was highly correlated with Big Five Conscientiousness. Grit nonetheless demonstrated incremental predictive validity of success measures over and beyond IQ and conscientiousness. Collectively, these findings suggest that the achievement of difficult goals entails not only talent but also the sustained and focused application of talent over time.

I’d like to highlight a few parts of that summary, each of which I have made bold for emphasis. The first thing to notice is that grit is identified as a non-cognitive trait, which means it doesn’t require much intellect. It is defined as perseverance and passion for attaining a long term goal, which is really, desire.

Grit accounted for an average of 4% of the variance in successful outcomes. To put it differently, where there was a success, there was grit.

Grit did not relate positively to IQ. In other words, grit is not a question of how smart you are. Grit is an expression of your dedication, a detachment from the outcomes of your work, and a determination to carry on, even with small defeats. It’s kind of like knowing that every “no” brings you one step closer to a “yes”.

The last item, where these findings suggest that achievement of difficult goals is not just talent but also the sustained effort and focused application of talent over time towards achieving a goal is the kicker. At this point, I am reminded of something that my standup comedy teacher once told me, “Practice beats talent every time.” You may have talent, but if you don’t practice it, success is not very likely.

I have observed grit, the focused and sustained application of talent in my two girls that they applied to their lives. I am struck by how accurately Duckworth’s observations correlate with my experience watching my kids grow up. I have watched my kids persevere through typical life challenges and then apply what they have learned to just about any challenge that is presented to them.

I suppose I’m a doting parent. Maybe I am. I am their greatest cheerleader. I am their greatest advocate. I am their mentor, their coach, their father. I am a facilitator.

From the beginning, we offered our kids no walkers or any other aids to learning to walk. We laid out a blanket on the floor and let them spend time each day learning to move, starting around 3 months of age. We laid them on their backs, to see the ceiling, to turn their heads to see us walking by.

They would move side to side. Eventually, they figured out how to lie on their side and roll back on their backs. Then they learned how to roll over, but didn’t know how to roll back. With some assistance, we let them figure that out. They learned to use their arms to push against the floor to roll themselves back on their backs.

We let our kids learn to crawl. We had carpet in most places so there was plenty of room to learn. We keep lots of open space for movement in the house. Rolling from back to stomach led to crawling. They learned to crawl. They learned to sit up.

On the way to toddlerhood, kids see their parents walking. They watch us walking to learn how to walk. They really don’t know for sure if they will ever walk. But they try, and they try, and they try. Then they crawl to the couch and lift themselves up to stand. Over and over. They prop themselves up against the couch and take a few steps.

And then one day, they try walking without the couch. They fall, cry and try again. But they keep going, one foot in front of the other. And then they get it, they walk. My kids did this without much help from me or my wife. I wanted them to own that moment when they learned how to walk. And they did. With sustained focus and application of their talents (walking on two feet is a talent that humans have that most other animals do not), my kids learned to walk.

But something else happened along the way. My kids would watch me do something and they’d want to do it, too. They’d see me put on my shoes and they wanted to put on their own shoes. They asked for help at first and then a few days or a few weeks later, they figured out how to do it themselves.

I got in the habit of presenting challenges that I figured they could do themselves. I gave them challenges so that they could show me they could do it. Soon enough, they started to push my hand away saying, “I got this, Dad.” That was sweet, sweet music to my ears.

I have heard at my kids’ schools and from other parents that getting kids to read can be a real challenge. But I have also read that if you read to your young kids every night, they will have heard more than a million words in context with good grammar, too. They will use your reading to them as a model for learning how to read.

I also learned about Upstart, a computer-based program for preschoolers for literacy, science, and math. My kids see their parents on their computers. They saw this as a life skill and wanted to do what we do. Upstart allowed my kids the opportunity to become a bit proficient with computers while at the same time, teaching the alphabet, simple words and sentences, and how to put words in context.

I didn’t teach my kids to read. I was just a facilitator. I put what they needed to learn to read in front of them and they did the work. But I didn’t just stop there. We went to the library and checked out books. I monitored their proficiency and found books to meet their skill level. My kids learned to read by practicing the act of reading. They demonstrated grit by reading something every day. Now, at ages 4 and 6, they read books on their own. They burn through a stack of books easily within a few days of a trip to the library.

The last example I want to share with you is about potty training. Potty training for the first kid is hard. There is no easy example to provide to them. They can only experiment by trial and error and learn to associate “performance” with sitting on the toilet.

But the second kid had it a bit easier. She saw her older sister going to preschool and dearly wanted to go to preschool, too. So I told the little one, “If you are potty trained, you get to go to school. That means if you don’t have to wear diapers you get to go to school.”

Zoom! She was on the toilet to try and go potty. She practiced going potty every day until she figured it out. She wasn’t worried about the outcome. She was only concerned with making sure that she could go to school as soon as she could. From the moment I explained to my younger child what she needed to do, I didn’t have to say or do anything more. She was motivated to reach that goal and her grit made it possible.

Grit is learned as well as inherited. I know that part of the grit my kids have is inherited as the genes they got from myself and my wife contributed to their capacity to keep trying despite failures and letdowns. I also know that grit is learned because as parents, my wife and I demonstrated grit with our commitment to marriage and life together, and our kids observed our behavior as a life skill.

Now I’m well aware that there are limits to grit, and that topic is another article that has already been covered, right here, on Medium. But I can tell you from first-hand experience that grit is built into us, and that grit can be taught. Grit is essential for long term contentedness, happiness, and survival.

Write on.

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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