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The Myth of the Perfect College
Preparing Older Teens for the Workforce
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Cultivating "Grittiness" in Teens
What makes some teens and tweens higher
achievers while others flounder in school? Why are some students driven to excel,
tackle their homework conscientiously and persevere even when tasks are
challenging or tedious while others avoid their work, get frustrated easily or
give up at the first sign of difficulty?
Educators, psychologists and of course
parents have been asking these questions
to figure out how to motivate our kids. For years, these issues have been at the
heart of my psychoeducational evaluations of children and teens. Contrary to what
many parents expect, I find innate aptitude rarely predicts accurately which
students apply themselves in school and care about their performance. I've tested
many gifted students who squeak by while others with more modest talent flourish
in the most demanding courses. Emotional and family factors usually play a large
role. But still, there is a hard-to-pinpoint factor or set of factors that
differentiates diligent students from indifferent ones.
What is "Grit?"
In her research on "grit," psychologist
Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania is finding promising answers
to these age-old questions. A former teacher, Dr. Duckworth describes grit as a
combination of passion and perseverance that enables people to pursue their goals
over the long-term until they succeed. Her studies suggest specific reasons why
gritty people have the stick-to-itiveness necessary to expend effort for the months
and years it often takes to realize their dreams. Many of her observations, I
believe, can be used by parents to cultivate grittiness—and, therefore,
greater motivation, productivity and success—in kids.
How about Self-Control?
Although self-control is related to grit,
Dr. Duckworth makes a valuable distinction between them. It's about short-term
versus long-term. When kids are able to resist the distraction of Facebook and the
temptation to read incoming text messages, they're using self-control to stay
focused in the moment. Grit, on the other hand, gives people the stamina to remain
dedicated to their goals and work hard over time. While it's possible to have one
without the other, the two usually go together. Say your son has always been
committed to becoming an architect. He immerses himself in learning all he can and
diligently studies in the courses that will prepare him for a college architecture
program. But despite his long-term dedication, if he lacks self-control he may
struggle to stay focused on day-to-day tasks such as developing the portfolio he
needs to apply.
3 Reasons for Grittiness
Several of Dr. Duckworth's findings about
what makes some people gritty seem particularly applicable to teens and tweens:
Self-Efficacy. - This term is used by psychologists to measure the belief in
one's own ability to complete tasks and reach goals—or to succeed in specific
situations. Kids who think their hard work will pay off are more motivated to keep
working (like most of us). When they encounter obstacles, having the mindset that
things will improve is what enables them to keep trying. Dr. Duckworth refers to this
sense of optimism about one's efforts as growth mindset. But teens and tweens who
believe they're dumb or who are convinced bad things will happen in school no matter
what they do simply give up. Feeling hopeless about succeeding, they don't complete
their work or do the bare minimum to get by.
Valuing Goals. - This is where the passion part of grit comes in. People who
pursue their dreams day in and day out have to feel wholehearted rather than
ambivalent or lukewarm about what they do. Teens and tweens have to identify what is
most fascinating and important to them. Unless goals are personally meaningful, they
won't endure over time and through countless obstacles. This is often apparent in
sports. Like most parents, if your athletic teen doesn't put in the practice time and
hard work to excel, you may be mystified and frustrated. But unless kids are infatuated
with their sport, they may appear to be "wasting their talent." Kids need more than
aptitude to succeed; they need passion.
Cost. - Dr. Duckworth finds gritty people don't put a high cost on working
extremely hard. They assume it's what they have to do. They also don't second-guess
themselves, constantly wondering if they should be doing something else instead. But
the nature of adolescent development probably makes it hard for most teens and tweens
to commit to long-term goals. In this period of rapid change, as they figure out who
they are, who they want to be, and what intrigues them, teens and tweens may reinvent
themselves repeatedly. Throughout this process, their passions may change as often as
their moods, causing them to abandon long-time pursuits in favor of new
interests—sometimes to their parents' chagrin.
What Grit Research Teaches Parents
Not to do. This research suggests that several common parental strategies
would likely be counterproductive:
Communicate that failure is devastating. - This message contributes to kids
believing failure is permanent, which is counter to cultivating the growth mindset
that boosts motivation. Instead, convey the attitude that making mistakes is normal,
expected, temporary and valuable.
Jump in too quickly. - What parent doesn't want to help kids or save them
from frustration? Yet in order to develop self-efficacy, teens and tweens need to
experience overcoming hurdles. This becomes a template for developing the attitude
and skills to persevere in the long-term. So rather than preventing or fixing
problems, allow kids to struggle a bit and coach them to find their own solutions.
Provide more scaffolding than kids need. - How can teens and tweens come to
believe in their own competence when they're getting tutoring in most subjects, study
skills coaching and standardized test prep? Although parents do this because we think
it "levels the playing field," we have to consider its effect on their self-efficacy.
As a high school student once said to me, "Don't my parents think I'm good enough the
way I am?"
Focus on grades. - Grades are often arbitrary and determined by many factors,
some of which may be beyond their control. Plus, focusing on external rather than
internal goals interferes with fostering motivation based on love of learning. Ask
instead about what teens and tweens are learning, what work they feel especially good
about and interesting discussions they may have had in school. Use teachers' comments
about kids' investment in learning as a better benchmark of their learning.
Warn about "fewer choices for college." - Although parents mean well when trying
to prevent teens from "closing doors" to their future, these "lectures" backfire because
they're universally demoralizing. Instead of trying harder, kids put in less effort
because they believe something must be inherently wrong with them. Instead, talk about
finding colleges that are a good fit for their interests. Not only is this the wisest
approach to selection, but also it encourages teens to identify their passions.
What a Parent
Should do. To cultivate grittiness in your teens and tweens, try these strategies:
Foster a love of learning. - Many teens identify their passions not in school,
but rather through travel, books, music, internships, part-time jobs and relationships
with mentors. You can support kids' ideas and interests by providing these experiences
and inculcate further intellectual curiosity by using dinner table conversations to talk
Value hard work. - To convey how highly you value effort, make it a focus of your
compliments. Take note of your teen's persistence and appreciate it, regardless of whether
you see it in schoolwork or non-academic areas. Many times, the spark of motivation ignited
in a hobby or outside interest, which leads to a sense of accomplishment, is later transferred
Model persistence of effort. - Kids learn best from what they observe at home. Are
there half-finished projects all over the house? When they see parents keeping at a task
until it's completed, they learn that's how it's done. Moreover, credit your own and their
successes to hard work and perseverance rather than luck.
Delay gratification. - From an early age, you can convey the principle that good
things take time. That way, kids learn the value of long-term versus short-term goals.
This coincides with psychological research on delay of gratification. Studies with even
young children show that the ability to wait to get more goodies (e.g., two cookies later)
rather than to opt for immediate gratification (e.g., one cookie now) predicts later
Their passions. - It's only natural for parents to introduce kids to the
interests, activities, and sports we love most. And it's great when teens and tweens share
our passions. But as they get older, they often differentiate themselves by choosing
different paths. In theory, this may sound fine, but in practice it's often
challenging—especially when their interests are completely foreign or even seem
strange. We may have to suspend our judgment and make a concerted effort to learn about
what fascinates our kids. Research on grittiness can help by reminding us that our kids
will be most successful when they're doing what they love—pursuing their own passions
rather than ours.