Tenacity, tenacity, tenacity. For many parents, it has become a relentless question: How do you raise tenacious kids who can achieve peak performance?
The research is pretty compelling. In 2016, the psychologist Angela Duckworth published “Grit,” about why a combination of passion and perseverance plays such an important role in achievement and in overcoming setbacks. Since then, a sort of micro-industry has sprung up around building grit and tenacity in kids. Parents obsess about it. Graduates try to communicate it on their resumes. Employers try to screen for it.
While Duckworth makes it clear in her book that a sense of purpose and meaning is crucial to fostering grit, this nuance often gets lost. Instead, among many parents, grit and tenacity are seen as a competitive edge in the scramble for outcomes including good test scores, entrance into selective colleges and competitive careers. There’s nothing wrong with wanting those things for your child. The problem is when the child starts to sense that those accomplishments matter more to you than the type of person they are. In 2014, one large study found that 80 percent of teenagers thought that their parents valued good grades more than if they were kind and caring, and since then, the focus on achievement has only intensified.
So here’s a question to ask instead: How can we model and build character qualities in kids that will help them thrive, not just achieve?
The Character Lab in Philadelphia, where Duckworth is the chief executive and a co-founder, is working on that. “The idea was to use the scientific method to bring new insights to the age-old question — how do you lead a good life for yourself and others?” she says. “At an instinctual level, parents understand that their kids need to do something when they grow up other than get good test scores.”
Research backs this up. “Psychologists spend a lot of time studying adult well-being,” says Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist who works with adolescent girls and is the author of “Untangled” and “Under Pressure.” “It barely correlates with academic or professional success.”
What it does correlate with is quality of relationships, a sense of purpose and feeling that you are good at what you do. “If you walk that back to look at what you can do as a parent, it’s raising conscientious kids,” Damour says. “When you’re conscientious, you tend to have better relationships, you’re caring, you’re not dishonest and you pursue things that have meaning to you.”
Duckworth also believes that strengths of heart such as kindness, gratitude and emotional intelligence are more important overall than strengths of will such as grit and self-control. “If you’re only thinking of résumé building, you’re missing something,” she says. “If you look at people with a lot of grit, they are primarily motivated by purpose.”
So how can we encourage positive character — the desire to lead a good life for yourself and others — in kids?
“Modeling is the most important thing,” Duckworth says. “It’s so easy to say one thing and model another.” She suggests that parents of teenagers ask their kids what they see their parents modeling, using a prompt like, “If you had to describe your mom or dad to a stranger, what would you say?”
The good news is, with teenagers “you usually don’t have to ask,” Damour says. “They’ll tell you.”
When they do, try not to get defensive. “Teenagers often have a lot of insight about their parents,” she says. That doesn’t mean they can be disrespectful or use language that your family does not allow, but when parents hear criticism, they should try to listen. If appropriate, respond with something like, “I didn’t handle that well. Let’s start over.” In doing so, you have modeled a valuable character trait: The ability to acknowledge a mistake, do repair work and move forward.
When modeling for younger kids, Duckworth encourages self-monitoring, or trying to be more aware of your actions in the moment. For instance, if you’re yelling at your kids when you are telling them not to scream at each other, it’s probably time to try a new approach. The Character Lab provides extensive resources for educators and parents — including playbooks, written by scientists, on how to model qualities such as kindness, curiosity, intellectual humility, grit and gratitude. The guides give concrete, accessible examples of how to model behavior effectively.
And finally, good modeling might require doing something radical as a parent — focusing on yourself more than your kid. The work of parenting is not just about your child; it’s also about you. If you have integrity and honesty, that’s what you’re going to communicate to your children. On the other hand, “if you’re shady, your kid is going to be shady,” Damour says. Children are very good at picking up on what their parents actually value, whether it is s relationships, stuff, spending time on their phone or spending time with family.
Praise the qualities you want in your child, but with intention. “Focus on factors a child feels they can control,” Damour says. “Rather than saying, ‘Look how smart you are,’ tell them, ‘Wow, look at how your persistence got you to this cool outcome.’”
Consider what you are praising as well. Are you celebrating your child’s progress individually or commenting on how they compare to their peers? Try alternating “I’m proud of you” statements with “You must be so proud of yourself,” or “I’m impressed that you did X.”
“That admiring position is very generous,” Damour says. “It keeps your child from feeling like you’re walking away with some of the chips.”
Enabling is a bit of a dirty word among grown-ups, but there is nothing wrong with creating situations for kids that encourage empathy, collaboration and kindness rather than waiting for them to spontaneously happen. “We are very influenced by our objective situations,” Duckworth says. “Nudge your kids, make it easier for them to be grateful and kind and curious.” She explains how it was important to her for her kids to write thank-you notes. “I wanted them to initiate it, find the stamp, everything. And guess what, no one ever wrote one.
Now, she clears off the kitchen table and puts out the addresses, the stamps, the stationery and the markers. The thank-you notes get written.
Putting your kids in situations where they can practice kindness and gratitude will pay dividends in adolescence, when teenagers truly feel a need to contribute (yes, parents, that was not a typo). Any parent who has had the opportunity to observe their teenagers interact with younger cousins or the neighbors’ kids has probably noticed how sweet and helpful the bigger child is.
“When older kids are with younger kids, you’ll observe spontaneous helping behavior,” Duckworth says. “Fourteen-year-olds take the hands of 5-year-olds to cross the street. Older kids love to teach younger ones.”
She suggests enlisting older siblings to help with younger ones. “Make them benefactors, not beneficiaries.” Involve them in solving the family’s problems and pose questions: “Your sister is really having trouble sharing this toy. What could we do to help her?” Creating situations where older children can teach younger children — like high school students tutoring elementary schoolchildren or presenting in a class — is also a great way to encourage helping.
And finally, when kids make mistakes, “give them ways to make it right, help them to do the work of repairing the wrongdoing,” Damour says. “Usually a child will feel bad about the thing they did — that’s the good advantage of guilt. When they have an opportunity to repair it, they don’t have to feel bad anymore, which prevents shame.” It’s also why apologizing to your kids when you do something wrong is so important, because it shows them what healthy repair work looks like.
If all this sounds hard, that’s because it is. Here’s the good news: You have a million interactions over your child’s life to get it right, and if you make a mistake, you get to try again. That’s what real perseverance looks like — the repeated effort to get something right because you believe it is a worthy goal. Which is exactly what you’re trying to teach your kids.
Anna Nordberg is a writer in San Francisco. She is working on a memoir about becoming a mother without your mom. Find her online at annanordberg.com.