Kids Who Succeed


A friend recently sent me a copy of Angela Duckworth's book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.Duckworth teaches psychology at Penn and has had a following among educators since 2011 when her work was featured in the New York Times. Boiling her (brilliant) career and research down to a phrase I'd say: tenacity trumps talent.

Duckworth's research identifies the importance of grit and ways in which we can measure it more accurately. But, she cautions, we still don't know as much as we would like about how to make kids 'gritty.'

One powerful idea she outlines is positive parenting. She uses a nice graphic to summarize a large quantity of research.

Duckworth Graphic

Duckworth Graphic

Parenting happens across a range of styles and circumstances. But two key dimensions are how supportive and how demanding we are. Duckworth explains that wise parents are both demanding and supportive.

When we acknowledge that it is hard for our kids to try and fail at a given activity, yet convey to them our expectation that they can and will do better the next time, we are wise parents.

She tells the story of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, after his first semester at BYU, calling his dad to say he wanted to quit. (He was the 8th-string quarterback.) "You can quit," his dad told him, "but you can't come home. ... You're not coming back here."  Reflecting on this conversation Young said "It was a loving act. It was tough, but it was loving."

When our kids struggle we sometimes seek to soften the blow by saying "Oh, it's ok, you're just not good at that." Offering a genetic excuse and suggesting hard work doesn't always matter. (Even Michelle Obama fell into this trap, sometimes.)

If you'll permit me a brief bit of bragging, my oldest is taking pre-calc and physics this year. Classes, he is quick to point out, his mother and I did not take in high school. Classes that are hard for him.

But when he fails, as happens, he is quick to offer that he's just not talented enough. Or smart enough.

My response, with much love, is "It would be easy to think that you're just stupid. Far more likely is you're just not working hard enough at this. That you want it to be as easy as history, or English. And for you, it isn't." Final exams are next week, and we'll see what dividends this approach yields.

In 2013, Actor David Duchovny reflected on how his basketball coach respected him by demanding much of him. His essay further informed the design of ICS's approach.

Our inaugural kindergarteners

Our inaugural kindergarteners

At ICS Ellen and the teachers always make clear that we know our students can do it. Whether it's keeping their hands to themselves during morning meeting, keeping their voices down in the stairwell, or slowing down to look again at a long word and sound it out. Over time, the payoff comes in kids who know they can rise to demanding tasks. Which, in a way, is the deepest love and respect we can offer them.

There's a lot more in Duckworth's book that I look forward to trying out at ICS and at home. And if you can't get the book, she has a TED talk too.  Much better than mine.