To Foster Grit in Our Kids and Ourselves

Friday, June 5, 2015 - 6:35am

To Foster Grit in Our Kids and Ourselves

I’ve never been great at doing things I’m not great at. Or at least that’s the story I tell about myself.

I was reminded of this while sitting around a friend’s dining room table late Saturday night, snacking on cherries and sipping on wine. We were talking about the messy prospect of raising a human being, otherwise known as parenting, and wondering aloud how you foster grit in your kids. In particular, how do you encourage children to work hard at mastering skills that, at first, evade them? Not so that they get into the perfect college, mind you, but so that they have the transcendent and truly unique feeling that comes with having earned mastery in something that doesn't come naturally.

One friend reflected back on her own childhood and said, “I think I learned to do that through improvising in jazz band. Music was such a huge part of the culture of my family and improvisation was a time to take risks. Sometimes it sounded amazing and sometimes it sounded terrible, and either way you just kept making music. You moved on.”

Another said, “My parents were so strict that there was no room for failure. It means that you either had to be perfect at something, or not do it at all.”

Seven to nine year olds discover mathematical patterns found in sunflowers, pine cones, and throughout nature while learning about a famous mathematician and exploring the Enchanted Garden at the Howard County Library System Miller Branch.

(Howard County Library System / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

When I thought back to my own memories of flailing, math immediately came to mind. In fifth grade I decided that I wasn’t good at it, and, from there on out, I felt a sense of almost paralyzing helplessness anytime I sat down to do my math homework or take a math test. My big brother would try to help me, on occasion, and usually end up making me feel even less equipped. Somehow the answers magically appeared in his head. He would try to trace back how he arrived at the end, but often found himself at a loss.

When I peel back the layers of my own insecurity, there’s something peculiar underneath. I really liked writing proofs in geometry. Duh — they involved words! I also dug sociological statistics and astronomy in college. In stats, it felt like I was learning numbers, but, more than that, I was learning how to speak a new language about people. In astronomy, I was being pushed to think at a scale that I found flabbergasting. The physics that I learned in that context seemed like a means to having my mind blown.

In my marriage, I’m the CFO, the chief financial officer, while my husband is the CDO, the chief domestic officer. I handle our taxes. I pay our bills. I invest in our SEP IRAs. I care about how our values align with our money. We’re freelancers, so there’s plenty of insecurity to tolerate, but I want to make sure that we’re safe should the totally unexpected happen. So there, again, it appears I have some facility with numbers, even if I had a hell of a time passing Algebra II.

(Peter Voerman / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

So maybe one of the problems is not an absence of grit, but the stubbornness with which we cling to our first impressions of our own gifts (or lack thereof). I got good at certain applications of math, the ones that had the most meaning for me — all while maintaining my original story about my pathetic lack of skills or interest.

What other first impressions am I clinging to about myself that, when examined closely, turn out to be false? Could I actually be a great cook? (Don’t answer this one, John. It’s a hypothetical.) Or might I have a beautiful singing voice?

The aim isn’t to teach our kids that they’re gifted at everything; the aim is to teach them to delay their judgment, to give themselves time to find the places and ways that have meaning for them, to make room for surprise and evolution in who they become. If we can encourage them to play, to take risks, to experiment, to take themselves less seriously, they will have a better chance of knowing when it’s time to hone in on something that has real heat for them.

Chief Warrant Officer Edward M. Hayes, a tenor saxophonist in the Marine Corps All Star Jazz Band, performs a solo during a concert at Traverse City West High School in Michigan. Hayes, the band officer of the 3rd Marine Air Wing band, auditioned to be a part of the all star jazz band and chose to be a part of the recruiting tour across Michigan.

(U.S. Marine Corps / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

And while we’re raising our kids with this intention, of course, we could do with raising ourselves this way, too. Kids are expected to try a range of things, but adulthood can often feel like an exponential narrowing. We do what we’re good at more and more of the time and call it expertise, while neglecting to explore all the underdeveloped parts of ourselves, the outdated stories, the unspoken creative dreams.

We don’t want to embarrass ourselves. We don’t think we have time to be messy. But flailing can actually be really fun. At the very least, it’s refreshing. It puts us in touch with our empathy for the universal human condition of being new and confused and determined. In that way, it’s not about us at all. And isn’t that freeing?

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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I liked this article a lot. I am a family therapist who does a lot of parent coach ing. In my family my mom was very positive. Perhaps too much. For I didn't always feel confident. I became a praise junky. But I did not feel it internally. When my oldest son wanted to be the goalie he came back to the car with"How did I do?" I stopped and said..."How did you think you did? What did you do well? What do you want to do different next time?"I amazed that you saved that low shot from # 10.
What a game."

Great points. It's like the idea that, in order to create great art you first have to create bad art. The hard part isn't the making of the bad art; it's allowing yourself to make bad art. And it's allowing yourself to make bad art over and over and over again, until you look at it and realize, "Hey, this is good!" In the case of this article, maybe you never do make good art, but instead gain the psychological fortitude of the motto "If at first you don't succeed - try, try again".

Geometry was my nemesis. My father was an encourager and gave me opportunity to learn how to count change and balance the crash drawer. Then he had someone teach me how to manage his accounts receivables when I was 14 years of age. However, I applied math skills and succeeded in real estate transactions. This gave me confidence when I had lazy eyes. I wish I knew the right questions to ask my grandchildren and mentee. I read a few in this blog. I love when I go to dinner with my daughter's family and we weave solving math problems throughout dinner. The children are 4th and 5th graders.

Great essay! I grew up with a bad case of screw-up-aphobia, always avoiding that which doesn't come easy. As I get older I'm developing more of a carpe diem attitude. Never too late!

I love this. Especially that last summary paragraph. Yes! :) Thanks, Courtney.

I am just so totally grateful I found-and-bookarked this page. What a wonderful source of intelligent thought on the internet. (contradiction? sounds like it, doesn't it!)

Two things resonated for me in this article: teaching kids to delay their judgement before giving up, and how the arts provide those arenas for developing grit in our children. Reflecting on my 30-some years as an arts administrator and music teacher, the hardest thing to teach both kids and parents was sticking with it -- not giving up that instrument after a few months just because it didn't come easily. The author is so very right about the amazing feeling of ownership that comes from developing a skill that requires work over time. Well done, Courtney! Now, if you can just channel this to all the school administrators who are allowing the arts to be cut from the curriculum...

This piece rings well with me, thank you Courtney.

I often, and very often, tell people that the problem with poor communities is that no one wants to live in the poor community (prime example, Detroit or say, the west side of Atlanta, etc, etc). As soon as anyone in these communities finds a "better" opportunity they are out the door. It is only a matter of time until we have all across the States that need the intention of creative, honest and just city planners.

Two years ago my son's mother enrolled him into a prestigious Christian school, a decision I was very much against. Being that she has the "final word" on all things there wasn't much that I could do. Personally, I have a strong belief that this type of schooling goes against the basic doctrine of Christianity. Christianity, I have read, shouldn't be about ostracizing the poor, but helping those poor by whatever means. Also, I believe, Christians should live among the poor, leading lives of compassion and contemplation. Christians do not take other Christians to court, they do not wage wars, and they do not buy into Christian nationalism. Instead of fighting with her about it I abandoned my well-paying job to find work at the lowest possible position so that I could show my son the "other side" of the faith that he's been prescribed by his family.

For me, this is teaching my son grit... this is teaching him about the people stuck at minimum wage that can't afford his school's tuition. I don't plan to stay here for too long I don't think. My affluent friends "cannot even" tolerate my journey. Maybe this was for them too? Sometimes I consider staying here forever because going back would give some of these people too much pleasure.

I'm so grateful for all of these comments. Wow! It gives me great food for thought as I continue to try to drop my story about what I'm not good at and also strengthen my muscle to do things I'm not great at.

I, too, was intimidated by math. It wasn't until I was in my thirties, and a fellow at a graduate program, that I finally unlocked the keys to algorithms. I remember the moment like Helen Keller figuring out what sequence of finger movements meant w-a-t-e-r. If only I had kept at it in school. My niece, now 25, played team sports all her life. She is fearless. She knows that if she doesn't get it at first, if she practices, it will come to fruition. I'm jealous of her ability, and grateful for Title IX, for her sake!