“Who you are is more important than what you know.”
The notion of grit has been getting lots of attention lately. Propelled by the work of McArthur Genius Grant winner Angela Duckworth, there’s a growing realization that parents and educators need to teach children to persevere, to hang in, and to not give up. Thomas Edison’s statement, “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up,” is more relevant today. Our trophy culture – kids expect a reward simply for participating – means that grit is elusive and even more important.
But grit isn’t enough. Surely children need to learn tenacity, but they also need to learn other attitudes and skills that will lead them to success - however it is defined. These other skills don’t replace scholastic learning. Students must learn to read, write, and calculate, but this should be the floor, not the ceiling. Indeed, possessing much of the rote knowledge and inert information that used to determine success in school is now moot because of the computer we carry in our pocket (disguised as a phone). People who succeed tomorrow will know what they need to know, understand where and how to access what they don’t know, and be able to manage themselves and work with others.
Being able to manage yourself and work with others are captured in the five success skills I have identified: empathy, self-control, integrity, embracing diversity, and grit. These skills should be introduced and valued in homes, reinforced in churches, synagogues, and mosques, and taught in schools.
· Empathy is the ability to see things from others’ perspective and to appreciate what they understand and how they feel. Many of the obstacles and conflicts that we face in life are created and exacerbated by difficulties we have in appreciating the situations and perspectives of others. The proliferation of media avenues, each talking to a philosophical niche, allows us to surround ourselves with those who see the world the way we do, regardless of where we physically live. Working to develop empathy in our children will provide them with the ability to understand and work with others. Asking “Why?” – pursuing others’ thinking and motives, whether at the dinner table or while discussing a novel – can help develop empathy.
· Self-control is maintaining focus and choosing wisely. Having self-control was never easy (as evidenced by the myriad of self-help and improvement books), and today’s technological world of instant gratification makes it even harder: a few keystrokes conjure a new villain, e-friend, or television show. But gaining self-control, intentionally forming habits which break the pattern of succumbing to temptation, can be taught. To develop self-control, children should identify an area in which a new habit must be formed, and then anticipate the obstacles which will make it difficult to form that habit. Too often we fail when we meet the same obstacle, over and over again, and we fail to plan a strategy – one that includes specific steps that we can monitor - to prevail. Developing a habit of self-control by setting goals, planning, monitoring, and reflecting should happen at home and at school.
· Integrity goes beyond honesty, although honesty is essential. Honesty is a personal statement and may be done quite privately, while integrity is publicly taking a stand, visibly making a commitment to what is right. Children must understand the importance of honesty: we must keep our word and not deceive. But as early as preschool age, they should be taught that we must also stand up for others through our actions and words. Children should be taught that they have an obligation to intervene when they see dishonesty or unfairness. This isn’t easy because the peer group is powerful; it’s comfortable to go along to get along. But children must learn that they have a responsibility to speak out when they see an injustice. We can help teach this by identifying people, in the news and from history and literature, who show integrity.
· Embracing diversity goes beyond accepting or, even, appreciating people who are different than we are. Embracing diversity is valuing those differences and understanding that people work better – whether on a playing field, in a work setting, or at a beach party – when the group is composed of a range of backgrounds and beliefs. When we associate with others who are different, we learn from and with them; a synergy occurs that cannot happen when everyone shares backgrounds, perspectives, and beliefs. Regardless of where we live, the ability to embrace diversity – differences in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, age, and ability – will be more important tomorrow than today, and we need to prepare our children for this increasingly variegated and varied world. Dinner table discussions can focus on different cultures and backgrounds in noting the amalgam of human differences.
· Grit – persistence with a purpose – is a key factor in success in every domain. We need to remember that the skilled people who have found success didn’t get there by accident. In fact, they weren’t even born with those skills. Whatever their talent, from management to medicine, from shooting baskets to selling cars, it was developed through thousands and thousands of hours of focused practice. It’s natural to see the display of high-level skills, whether at the Olympics or on stage, and assume that this developed naturally. But we need to teach our kids that grit is an ingredient in every success. We should take the time to understand the roads famous people traveled to success, and we should also share the struggles we’ve faced and the challenges we have overcome (and are still overcoming).
While much about the future is uncertain – the only constant will be change - we can be confident that devoting the time and energy to help our children develop their success skills will be a wise investment for them and the world.
Thomas R. Hoerr, PhD is the author of The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and Other Success Skills Students Need (ASCD Press, 2016), thomasrhoerr.com