11/15/2013 11:06 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Growing Gritty Kids (No Prison Time Necessary): Lessons From a Juvenile Detention Center

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The teenage prison population is surprisingly un-gritty. Sure, they have knuckle tattoos, shocking scars, and felony records longer than a residential phone book, but when it comes to the kind of grit Angela Lee Duckworth talks about, the kind that is essential to success, it's not there. In my jail classroom, it's not so strange to see kids break down into tears at the site of a fraction, throw a fit when they stumble while reading, and flip chairs to avoid writing an essay. What's wrong when a kid has the nerve to hold up a gas station but refuses to even try a two-step math problem?

I do believe that any child will participate when he feels capable and has hope of success. But we want to raise a community of kids who are willing to work hard despite long odds and huge challenges. We want kids with grit. Our world's most significant problems won't be solved by students who throw up their hands and say "that's doing too much" at the site of a two-sided worksheet.

My own kids have been good test cases in grit. My oldest was born with brains. Identified as gifted, school comes easy for him. His younger brother, on the other hand, struggles. He white-knuckled his way through learning to read and now spends twice as long on the same homework his older brother used to breeze through. But guess who has more of that hard-working, gut-driven, long-term determination that Duckworth says is essential? Guess who was the first to try, fail, try, fail, try and finally succeed at launching off the half-pipe at our skate park? Guess who was one of the youngest talent show contestants at his school? And guess who still has a mild tantrum when a new concept does not come easy? Sometimes intelligence is not an advantage.

So how do we grow gritty kids? I believe it can be taught by ingraining in our young children the truth that consistent work over an extended time period equals success. And the best resources are a calendar and a challenge. Give a kid a yo-yo, a guitar, some juggling balls, a weaving loom, a times table, anything that takes time to learn. Push them to practice every day. Bribe a little if necessary. Have them chart the time they work on the challenge and their progress. Let them get frustrated, angry, yell, quit, and then go back for more. Help them regulate these feelings. We once had to take a guitar away before it was thrown through the window.

"Once kids see that grit is like a muscle that can be grown and flexed, they will be willing to take on any endeavor, fearless with the belief that all things are possible." -- Andrew Andestic

Encourage mistakes and praise the effort over anything else.

With this formula, success is inevitable. And when it comes, sit down with your child, study the calendar that demonstrates their extended effort, and celebrate their accomplishment. Once kids see that grit is like a muscle that can be grown and flexed, they will be willing to take on any endeavor, fearless with the belief that all things are possible.

Of course, doing it with them is even better. When my kids started karate, I joined too. They got to see their dad bow to the six-year-old girl who out-ranked him and then clumsily try to learn a jump kick. We were all very proud, six months later, when we got our orange belts.

It is also important to get kids involved in activities that, though not always fun, are essential to being human, like volunteering at a nursing home, going on long car rides to visit monuments, "boring" hikes in the woods, church services, and cultural events. For you, that trip to the modern art museum is a delight; for them it's patience and self-control boot camp, key components to grit.

Finally, we need to rethink how we treat failure. Why didn't Edison quit after the first few hundred light bulbs blew? Why didn't Lincoln quit after losing his first election? They did not think of failure like most of us do today, as a sign to throw in the towel. Failure is instruction. We tell kids to learn from mistakes, but we don't act like we mean it. Every time a politician messes up or some executive makes a bad decision, we tear them apart. The recent roll out of Obamacare is a good example. Mistakes were made and fixed, but nobody was satisfied until someone got shredded for it. Do we leave enough room in our world for the Edisons? Bold moves, even unsuccessful ones, should be celebrated.

Back inside jail school, we do see success. We see kids who, given the time and structure, finish their first novel and realize they like to read. Or kids who, after a week of strategic instruction, understand that math is not a talent but a skill they can learn. Of course, they might still apply these new skills to their next stick-up, and my own kids sometimes put too much of their grit into destruction tactics. I guess once grit is there, we can't always control how it will be used. For that, we need integrity.

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