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How to Be a Better Parent by Boosting Your Child's Grit

Ms. Meyers is a long-time preschool and kindergarten teacher who writes about issues in early childhood education and advocates for play.

Does Your Child Have Grit?

If you’re a parent with school-aged children, you've undoubtedly heard principals and teachers speak enthusiastically about the latest buzzword in education: grit.

Today, academics love to extol its countless virtues, explaining why it's a critical trait for youngsters to cultivate. They refer to it as the “secret sauce” that keeps kids plowing through trials and tribulations so they can achieve their long-range goals. They point to numerous studies that show perseverance, not intelligence nor talent, is the greatest predictor of a person's success in life.

By not letting them struggle and fail, parents set their kids up to be less capable and confident.

By not letting them struggle and fail, parents set their kids up to be less capable and confident.

Parents, This Message Is For You!

Sadly, though, some parents disregard their message, not realizing that it’s aimed at them. They simply don’t appreciate the enormous role they play in promoting their youngster’s tenacity. Sadly, it’s these unwitting moms and dads who actually undermine it by sheltering their kids from heartache and hardship.

Not wanting them to experience failure and disappointment, these moms and dads coddle their kids. In so doing, they make them less capable, less confident, and less likely to take risks.

With that in mind, here are seven common ways that parents prevent their youngsters from developing the all-important grit that they need to thrive.

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals

— Dr. Angela Duckworth

7 Ways That Moms and Dads Prevent Their Kids From Developing Grit

1. Being helicopter parents.

2. Adopting the "everyone gets a trophy" mentality.

3. Not letting them fail.

4. Turning them into praise junkies.

5. Not giving them chores.

6. Over-programming them.

7. Being a friend and not a parent.

1. Being Helicopter Parents

Lately, we've heard a lot about helicopter moms and dads. These are the parents who hover around their kids on the playground, at the science fair, and on the sidelines during the soccer game. They're always there to guide, patrol, and protect, ready to jump into action if any threat comes to their child. In their minds, they're doing what good parents are supposed to do. Sadly, they have no awareness that their over-involvement is actually harming their kids.

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Today, the unhealthy connection between parent and child has been made worse by technology. Now, parents can always be in touch with their kids through cell phone calls, texts, and e-mails. When struggling with a problem or encountering a challenge, youngsters no longer need to use their critical thinking skills to solve it themselves. They can just contact mom and dad who will be more than happy to save the day and be the hero.

I watched this happen recently at my nephew's seventh birthday party. He had invited 12 of his classmates and everyone was having fun playing games and eating pizza.

However, at a point in the festivities, one little boy got frustrated after losing at musical chairs. At this moment, he pulled out his phone and called his mom to say that he wasn't having a good time. Within minutes, she was at the front door to scoop him up, take him home, and be his savior. Without giving it any thought, she gave her son the crushing message: You can't hack it at this party. You can't maneuver this social situation so I needed to save you.

2. Adopting the "Everyone Gets a Trophy" Mentality

Much of what we know about the noteworthiness of tenacity comes from the research of Dr. Angela Duckworth. She’s the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, a book that I’m always recommending to my friends and to the moms and dads of my young students. In fact, it was indispensable to me in developing a parenting philosophy based on the goal of turning my two young sons into self-sufficient men. It was especially helpful because my own parents had overindulged my siblings and me and, in the process, turned us into dependent, insecure adults. I didn’t want to do the same with my own kids so I desperately needed a guide and Grit was it.

Duckworth’s primary message is that our youngsters need to know that working long and hard is essential for success and that there are no shortcuts.

Today, in our “everyone gets a trophy” society, we give out awards as a quick, easy way to boost our children’s self-esteem. We mistakenly believe that a prize will miraculously give them confidence. In reality, though, a positive self-image is achieved only through putting in time and effort. It develops when we set goals, struggle to accomplish them, and then feel proud about our fortitude.

When my 5-year-old son got a trophy at the end of soccer season, he hadn’t earned it. The truth of the matter was that he and his teammates had no idea why they received one. While it made them happy for a fleeting moment, it didn’t hold any long-term significance. It wasn’t a symbol of hard work and determination like a trophy is meant to be. While other parents thought it was “absolutely adorable” to bestow these kids with such a prize, I knew that we were robbing them of the satisfaction that comes when they strive for something and achieve it.

In this brief video, Dr. Angela Duckworth explains her research on grit and why it's central to a person's success in life.

3. Not Letting Them Fail

Some moms and dads recoil at the thought of letting their children fail. To them, It’s tantamount to giving them permission to play with matches. They’re convinced that it’s a parent’s duty to pump up their youngsters’ self-esteem. In their minds, allowing them to fail is counterproductive to that because it makes them less confident. By clinging to this false premise, though, they stop their kids from knowing defeat and battling back from it.

Research shows that these are the very experiences needed to develop grit. Parents who see failure as a great teacher and communicate that to their kids encourage them to spread their wings and take risks.

Jessica Lahey writes about this in her book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. She sums it up perfectly with these words: “Today’s overprotective, failure avoidance parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.”

Lahey’s words certainly ring true to me as a long-time teacher who’s witnessed the recent phenomenon of parents going overboard to shelter their kids from failure. After decades of holding an annual science fair at our elementary school, the faculty decided to end it a few years ago. Sadly, moms and dads had seized control, creating professional-looking displays that were obviously done by them and not their kids. It switched from being a child-centered event to an adult-centered one with kids no longer getting any benefit.

4. Turning Them Into Praise Junkies

Today, some parents pour on the accolades lavishly and indiscriminately, turning their kids into “praise junkies.” Once again, they do so in an attempt to give them instant self-esteem, believing that this is what good parents do. It's a quick fix that moms and dads think will give their kids confidence.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work and can actually backfire. It can make kids dependent on the opinions of others instead of relying on their own self-evaluation. They start to crave kudos from their parents, teachers, and coaches like a junkie needing a fix.

As a result, their sense of worth comes from ongoing positive feedback from others. When they become teens, this pattern becomes especially perilous as they seek approval from friends instead of adults. They become easy prey for peers who pressure them to engage in dangerous behaviors such as driving too fast, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and having unprotected sex.

5. Not Giving Them Chores

Many of us who grew up in large families had daily chores assigned to us by our parents. They included tasks such as washing the dishes, taking out the trash, walking the dog, and setting the table for dinner. It was imperative that each of us completed our job so the household ran smoothly. As a result of pitching in and completing our assignments, we gained a sense of pride as contributing members of our families. It helped us develop both grit and self-esteem.

Today, though, many kids aren’t given any jobs around the house except to clean their own bedrooms. In fact, some harried moms and dads find assigning chores to be more trouble than it’s worth. They’d rather just complete the tasks themselves, not wanting to devote the time and effort to supervise their younger children or nag their older ones.

According to Julie Lythcott-Haims, though, moms and dads who don’t assign chores are making a critical mistake with far-reaching implications. She’s a former dean at Stanford University and author of How to Raise an Adult. Her research shows that children who were brought up doing jobs around the home are more likely to become competent workers as adults. Because they’ve acquired the necessary grit, they’re sought-after employees. They’re the ones who complete assignments independently, pitch in when they see a need without being asked, and collaborate effectively with peers. They’re the coveted team players in the workplace.

In this video, Julie Lythcott-Haims details the damage that parents can do by micro-managing their kids.

6. Over-Programming Them

Today, many anxious moms and dads over-book their children with activities, thinking that this is key to their future success.

When I taught pre-kindergarten, for example, parents of my young students would pick them up after three exhausting hours of social interaction at school and cart them off to ballet, soccer, and gymnastics. The idea that these little ones should go home for lunch, a nap, and time for themselves wasn’t even considered. These parents were focused on building their children’s resumes, not on letting them be kids.

In over-programming their youngsters, though, they failed to recognize the enormous value of downtime and free play. According to psychologists, it's important that kids have unstructured time for activities of their own choosing. It stimulates imagination, builds self-confidence, promotes curiosity, and boosts grit.

Dr. Peter Gray argues that youngsters need more free play, more time with peers, and fewer activities led by parents, teachers, coaches, and scout leaders. In his numerous articles on the topic, he tethers the rise of anxiety, depression, and narcissism among kids to the decline in free play. He writes: “To grow up well, children need to get away from adults and, in that way, learn how to create their own activities, solve their own problems, and get along with peers without recourse to authority figures.”

7. Being a Friend and Not a Parent

One of the ways that moms and dads undermine their kids’ grit is by being their friends instead of authority figures.

When the parent-child relationship becomes buddy-buddy, the youngster loses something irreplaceable. They no longer have a person to respect who knows more than they do and guides them on their life’s journey. Having such an individual on their side gives kids a sense of security that lets them take risks, stumble, get up, and do it again. This is how they develop perseverance.

Long-time teachers like me have witnessed moms and dads abdicate their authority in favor of friendship during the past few decades. Sadly, some moms and dads fear that establishing and enforcing rules will alienate their kids. Their anxiety puts children in control, even though they are too young and inexperienced to handle such power.

While teaching preschool, I had moms and dads who wouldn’t set standards because they didn’t want to anger their 4-year old children. When I’d inform them about studies that show the harmful impact of screen time, they’d agree with the premise. However, they’d immediately add that it would be impossible to set limits in their home. They’d explain that their preschoolers would get mad at them.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist and author of “Are You Your Child’s Friend or Their Parent?" She writes: As parents, we’re taking the easy path, the path of least resistance, telling ourselves that if our kids like us, then we must be doing this parenting thing right. In the process of trying to be friends with our kids, however, we are giving away our authority, depriving them of the experience of being taken care of, denying them the serenity, trust, and confidence that arises from knowing that we can stand our ground and protect them even when it incites their anger.

What Do You Think?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers

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