raising children with grit

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Grit" by Angela Duckworth. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What exactly is “grit”? Why is it important to cultivate grit in children?

The trait of grit, as described by Angela Duckworth, is the combination of passion and perseverance. It’s an important trait to have because it’s one of the biggest predictors of success. If you want your children to become successful, you should raise them with grit from the beginning.

Here is what Angela Duckworth has to say about raising children with grit.

How to Parent for Grit

Duckworth notes that the word “parent” has Latin roots meaning “to bring forth,” so that when she discusses “parenting for grit,” she is speaking not only of actual parents raising children with grit, but also of coaches, teachers, business leaders, military leaders, and anyone else who seeks to foster the four elements of grit in others—interest, practice, purpose, and hope. For the purposes of our discussion, though, we’ll use the terms as they apply to parents and children. 

Four Parenting Styles

Duckworth argues that there are two spectrums, or axes, on which parenting styles can fall:

  1. Undemanding versus demanding: This axis is about discipline. This is a measure of the expectations a parent places on their children to achieve goals.  
  2. Unsupportive versus supportive: This axis is about emotional support. A supportive parent accepts their child as they are for their own strengths and weaknesses and supports their individual goals. An unsupportive parent tries to guide their child toward choices they, the parent, would have made. 

These two axes form a 2×2 grid of parenting styles, giving us four parenting categories: Authoritative, Permissive, Neglectful, and Authoritarian.

Evolving Terms

Duckworth renames “authoritative” as “wise” so as not to confuse it with “authoritarian,” but psychologists generally use the term “authoritative” when describing this parenting style. The other three terms Duckworth uses—authoritarian, permissive, and neglectful—are the ones that are in common use among psychologists today.

Duckworth didn’t originate the theory of the four categories. They were first developed in the 1960s by Diana Baumrind, a researcher at the University of California, who originally distilled them into just three categories, not four: authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive. Later, psychologists (along with Baumrind herself) came to see the permissive category as, in fact, two separate categories: permissive-indulgent and permissive-indifferent (today better known as “neglectful” or “uninvolved”). 

Today, psychologists evaluate parenting styles based on how the parent ranks in four measurements: 
-Maturity demands
-Control of the child’s behavior
-Warmth and nurturing
-Communication (whether or not the child’s opinion is sought and respected)

These measurements correspond to Duckworth’s axes of discipline and emotional support, also termed “demandingness” and “responsiveness” by some psychologists: Discipline incorporates maturity demands and control of behavior, and emotional support incorporates warmth, nurturing, and open communication. 

Authoritative Parenting Leads to Better Outcomes

Duckworth notes that in the past, many parenting experts advocated for authoritarian parenting—full of rules and discipline but not much emotional support. In more recent years, she says that many parents have reacted to that attitude by going in the complete opposite direction—lots of emotional support but little directional guidance.

She argues, though, that the best parenting method lies in between these two extremes, combining disciplined guidance with emotional support. It’s the parenting style described by the upper right corner of the grid—authoritative, or wise, parenting. 

Duckworth contends that authoritative parenting has consistently been shown to be the parenting method that best produces grit in children. In authoritative parenting, parents have high standards and expectations for their children but also offer loving support. Authoritative parenting produces kids who get higher grades, are more self-reliant, and experience less anxiety and depression. This is generally true across ethnicity, social class, and marital status.

The effect of authoritative parenting seems to carry on into adulthood. Studies show children of authoritative parents tend to end up with the healthiest behavior as adults:

  • Children of neglectful parents drink alcohol and smoke twice as much as their wise-parented peers. They also display far more antisocial behavior, anxiety, and depression.
  • Indulgent parenting produces children with just slightly better outcomes than neglectful parenting.
  • Authoritarian parenting produces children with similar alcohol and smoking use to authoritative parenting, but slightly more antisocial behavior and noticeably more anxiety and depression.
When Authoritative Isn’t Best

Many studies have backed up Duckworth’s assertion that authoritative parenting leads to the best outcomes in children. However, some researchers have noted that these studies focused almost exclusively on families from Western, Anglo-Saxon, European or American cultures, but that when the studies looked at minority groups within those cultures, there were discrepancies in the study results. These discrepancies indicated that the authoritative style might not be the most beneficial style in non-Anglo-Saxon cultures.

Specifically, researchers observed that African American teens showed no correlation between authoritative (wise) parenting and achievement, and both Hispanic and Chinese American teens responded best to authoritarian parenting. Additionally, authoritarian parenting was correlated with higher achievement scores in communities with low income and low education. 

Further, in some other countries, such as some Middle Eastern and Asian countries, authoritarian parenting doesn’t seem to be as detrimental to adolescents’ mental health as it does in Western cultures. And, studies in Spain, the Philippines, Germany, Mexico, and Brazil revealed that the permissive (or “indulgent”) method performed equal to, and sometimes better than, the authoritative method. 

Several theories that have been put forward to explain these differences focus on the different environments in which children from these cultures grow up. In explaining the success of authoritarian parenting, psychologists look to the fact that many poor, ethnic communities can be dangerous, and authoritarian parenting, centering around obeying authority figures, can provide some protective benefits for children. Additionally, in authoritarian countries, the authoritarian parenting style may prepare children better for dealing with business contacts and authority figures as adults. 

To explain the strength of permissive parenting, psychologists argue that strict parenting may be less acceptable in cultures that value egalitarian relations rather than hierarchical ones. 

Tough Love

Duckworth notes that the term “tough love” has traditionally been associated with the authoritarian method of parenting, where parents show you they love you by enforcing rules and discipline, but not by offering emotional support. 

However, Duckworth argues that tough love should be understood differently. She emphasizes both words of the term—tough and love—so that tough love is reflective of the authoritative parenting method where discipline and rules are combined with explicit emotional support. In this manifestation of tough love, a parent might compel their child to finish a sport program or an educational program, but the child understands that the parent has the child’s best interest at heart. Tough love is about the parent trying to help the child, but it’s never about the parent trying to control the child. 

Ramifications of Tough Love in KIPP Schools

Critics of KIPP schools object to the way the program emphasizes the old-fashioned “tough love” associated with authoritarian parenting over more progressive teaching methods, arguing that the program mistakenly conflates a focus on effort with strict rules and regulations

They argue that in striving to achieve academic performance goals, KIPP teachers adopt a “no excuses,” punitive mindset that, they contend, hasn’t been shown to be effective in raising students’ performance

Critics further argue that if these kinds of strict, rules-focused methods were actually effective, they would have been adopted by schools in middle-class areas, but they haven’t been. Instead, wealthier students are educated with more supportive teaching methods that foster independent thinking and creativity. Critics contend that such differences might create two types of adult workers—one who’s been trained to think and one who’s been trained to follow orders—and that these groups of workers will be largely split along class and race lines. 

Parenting Comes Through Messages

Duckworth notes that parenting styles are communicated through specific messages to children. If you regularly convey the following messages, you’re likely parenting wisely:

  • My children can come to me with problems and know I’ll help them.
  • I spend time just talking to my child or having fun with them.
  • My kids have a right to their own point of view.
  • I expect my children to follow the family rules.
  • When my children make mistakes, I point out how they could do better, but not in an angry or judgmental way.

In contrast, these kinds of statements indicate you’re not parenting wisely:

  • I don’t like listening to my kids’ problems and will ask them to stop talking about them.
  • I rarely praise my kids for doing something right.
  • I expect my kids to listen to my ideas and not raise objections.
  • I make most of my kids’ decisions for them.
  • When my kids do something wrong, I either punish harshly or let them get away with it.

Duckworth notes that teachers can convey the same messages to the same effect. She points to a study that showed when teachers give feedback on an essay along with a note saying, “I have high expectations and I know you can reach them,” the students revised their essay more than twice as much—and with far greater enthusiasm—than did students who received feedback with a note saying, “Here’s some feedback on your paper.”  

Authoritative Parenting Can Become a Virtuous Circle

Although they don’t use the term, In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner apply the concept of authoritative parenting in an organizational setting where leaders are in the parenting role, and explain how such enlightened leadership can inspire employees to perform better. 

They focus on the importance of positive support in the form of feedback. When a leader conveys to her workers that she believes in their abilities, those workers feel respected and more highly motivated, and they’ll end up feeling confident, capable and empowered to take initiative. In one anecdote, a manager made sure to “parent wisely” in this way by keeping three coins in his left pocket as reminders to dole out positive feedback—throughout his day, he would move one coin to his right pocket whenever he recognized or encouraged his team’s efforts, aiming to have all three in his right pocket by the end of every day. 

Kouzes and Posner argue that this kind of practice creates a virtuous circle whereby you explicitly make note of other people’s positive behaviors, which in turn encourages them to behave more positively, which in turn encourages you to comment on their behavior again. 

Although Duckworth doesn’t specifically mention a virtuous circle, this is essentially what her advice would create: a situation in which you convey to your child, student, mentee, or direct report that you believe they are capable and that you support them emotionally, which in turn encourages them to achieve higher goals and makes them more emotionally secure. 

Parents Need to Model Grit

Duckworth observes that consistently, parents who successfully impart grit to their children are those who model it—she notes that even parents who parent wisely won’t impart grit to their children if they themselves aren’t living it. She emphasizes that there are two components to this:

  1. Have your own passion and perseverance for your goals.
  2. Foster a positive relationship with your child so they will be encouraged to emulate you. 

She notes that many studies have shown how readily children imitate the behavior of adults they observe, and that anecdotally, many successful, gritty children have careers that are in some ways similar to the careers of their parents, indicating that the interests of the parents are passed down to the child along with a work ethic. 

As a caveat, she notes that while parents are typically the source of most of the grit-training in a child’s life, this is not always the case. Sometimes a child won’t have authoritative parents but will instead have another adult in their life who provides the right feedback, guidance, and emotional support to help them develop grit. 

She points to examples of children from disadvantaged homes where the parents are either incarcerated or absent, but who still grow up to be successful, happy adults because other adults stepped forward to offer support at some point in their development: teachers, coaches, other relatives, and so on. The important thing is that there is some adult presence in a child’s life to model grit and support the child’s development. 

The Influence of Environmental Factors on Interest

The importance of parental guidance points to one of the major criticisms of Duckworth’s theories, which is that her focus on grit places the blame for failure too much on the shoulders of the person who’s failed, ignoring the outsized influence that environmental factors have on a person’s development of interest and perseverance. 

Duckworth doesn’t discount the influence of other people, though. She acknowledges the contributions of a community of supporters when, for example, she discusses Olympic swimmers who started off playing in pools and later joined local swim clubs and teams, until their identity shifted from “someone who swims” to “I am a swimmer.” This development depended not only on the personal grit of the swimmer, but also on the encouragement and support of the swimmer’s community. 

In fact, Duckworth’s theories might be interpreted as an argument against “blaming the victim,” by exploring how people in positions of influence can help (or hinder) others in developing grit. Her theories are not only a recognition of the different ways that grit can be developed in a person, but also a guide to how parents, teachers, and coaches can teach grit, belying the argument that she places blame for failure on the shoulders of the person who failed. 
Raising Children With Grit: Tips for Parents

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  • How your grit can predict your success
  • The 4 components that make up grit
  • Why focusing on talent means you overlook true potential

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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