On Grit and Gratitude

On the fourth Thursday in November we pause to give thanks. For some, the year’s “harvest” has been bountiful. For others, less so. Either way, in Thanksgiving among family and friends lies abundant appreciation for shared values and shared time.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

What may get lost amid the food and football, however, is the transformative power of this civil, largely un-commercialized holiday to impart significant life lessons to youth … and perhaps even those raising them.

What might those lessons be?

First, Thanksgiving reflects the perseverance of a long-ago populace sometimes challenged by war, weather and the vagaries of strife. Yet, much of the same could be said today – more than two centuries after President George Washington announced the first such celebration and 153 years since President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation creating a precedent for an annual, and national, day of gratitude.

Prior to that point, celebrations had been observed only in some states, mostly northern, and at a time of their choosing.

Lincoln’s words captured the blessings of “fruitful fields and healthful skies,” the preservation of peace despite aggressions, obedience to laws by which we are governed and advances made possible by plough, shuttle, ship and axe. Most enduring are references to those blessings that “cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart …”

Embedded in these traditions are tangible teachings about grit and gratitude.

Of grit, Judith Shulevitz, a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times, said, “Grit: The word has mouth feel. It sounds like something John Wayne would chaw on. Who wouldn’t want grit?”

Indeed, who?

Shulevitz’s query was the introduction to a larger May 2016 review of Angela Duckworth’s seminal book, GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverence. She reveals, “At the University of Pennsylvania’s Duckworth Lab, grit is gender-neutral. It’s self-control and stick-to-it-iveness. The two big ideas about grit that have made Duckworth famous are first, that it predicts success more reliably than talent or I.Q.; and second, that anyone, man or woman, adult or child, can learn to be gritty.”

That’s good news. But how?

According to the review, it’s a rather simple formula: “Talent × effort = skill. Skill × effort = achievement. In other words, ‘Effort counts twice.’”

In truth, real grittiness is about more than effort. In his book 2013 How Children Succeed, Paul Tough adds curiosity, conscientiousness, self-control and optimism to the mix, calling them “crucial missing dimensions” of measuring children’s abilities.

Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed, redefines how young people actually acquire what have become widely known as “soft” or “21st Century” skills. He says, “I write about a new generation of researchers – neuroscientists, psychologists, and economists – who are questioning the idea that character strengths should be thought of as skills at all. Instead, these researchers say, qualities like perseverance or self-control are more like psychological states or mindsets – which means they’re mostly the product of a child’s environment. So if we want to help kids to persevere, these researchers say, we need first to figure out how to improve their environment, both at home and at school.”

Author Alfie Kohn, in a May 2014 opinion-editorial “Do Our Kids Get Off Too Easy?” has some ideas. He states, “The conventional wisdom these days is that kids come by everything too easily – stickers, praise, A’s, trophies. It’s outrageous, we’re told, that all kids on the field may get a thanks-for-playing token, in contrast to the good old days, when recognition was reserved for the conquering heroes. Children are said to be indulged and overcelebrated, spared from having to confront the full impact of their inadequacy.”

How to extinguish those presumptions? Kohn pushes back against common notions of what teaches resilience. Of “inoculation by immersion,” he writes of “mostly undefended beliefs” about … “what teaches resilience (experiences with failure), what motivates people to excel (rewards) and what produces excellence (competition).” In their place, Kohn focuses on the easy-to-grasp concept of unconditional acceptance, saying, “Interestingly, no research that I know of has ever shown that unconditionality is harmful in terms of future achievement, psychological health or anything else. In fact, studies generally show exactly the opposite.”

Ergo, unconditional love and acceptance build unconditional self-esteem, which is, in many ways, the point of Ron Fournier’s best-selling book Love That Boy. It makes a compelling case for redefining “definitions of ‘perfect’ by meeting kids where they are and, more important, accepting them for whom they are.”

Just think – What if the kids then follow our lead?

Another important life lesson young people can learn from family and friends on Thanksgiving is the true meaning of gratitude. And, here, the payout may be equally impressive.

According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, “Research convincingly shows that grateful youth, compared to their less grateful counterparts, are happier, more satisfied with their lives, friends, family, neighborhood, and selves. They also report more hope, engagement with their hobbies, higher GPAs, and less envy, depression, and materialism.”

In The Academic Minute’s “The Benefits of Gratitude,” psychologist Jeffrey Froh of Hofstra University, concludes, “The feeling of gratitude can positively influence all the other factors of one's life.” He goes on to speculate, “If there was a new wonder drug on the market that got kids to behave better, improve their grades, feel happier, and avoid risky behaviors, many parents around the world would be willing to empty their bank accounts to acquire it. Amazingly, such a product does exist. It's not regulated by the FDA, and it's free and available to anyone at any time. This miracle cure is gratitude.”

While gratitude may not be a wonder drug, it does seems to drive a neurochemical response, according to Carol Lloyd, executive director of GreatSchools.org. She told syndicated columnist Leanna Landsmann, a member of the national advisory board at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), “Expressing gratefulness releases oxytocin – a brain chemical that promotes trust, attachment, generosity, calmness, security and reduces stress.” Lloyd advises parents to model gratitude in an “emotionally genuine way.” This, she says, helps spur an emotional habit “that will shape your child’s responses in a positive way.”

Wow! Good thing “there is always, always, always something to be thankful for,” as the oft-expressed, if unattributed, truism states.

Grit and gratitude, two perfect menu items for Thanksgiving Day.

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