How to raise your kids to have grit

We all want to be ‘super dad’ but research shows there's a strong case to be made for letting your kids see you stuff up from time to time.

Dad and toddler problem solving

Ask any grown man and he can usually conjure at least half-a-dozen examples of something sizzlingly stupid or embarrassing that he did when younger to impress a woman (or man).

When you settle down, you may think those days are behind you (because let’s face it, nothing you do impresses her anymore).

But then you have children and it starts all over again.

From kicking a ball, or diving in a pool, or lighting a fire, you suddenly feel pressure to look like you know everything, and are pretty damn great at most things.

I know I do, and I find it hard to stop, even when it really costs me.

The other day, my daughter (age 6 and born with a slightly defective fear gene) decided she wanted to dive from the very high platform at our local Olympic pool.

She felt strongly, however, that I should go first ‘so I could be in the water to rescue her on splashdown’, if needed.

I thought about suggesting I just slide in from the side of the pool and watch from there.

But I felt challenged—as if one of my mates had dared me to do it—and so, was unable to back down.

I hadn’t stood on one of those platforms since I was 15, and it really did look a lot higher 30 years on. But my daughter was watching—I couldn’t chicken out now…

Jump I had to, and jump I did.

What I performed next could never even be described as a dive. It was not graceful in any way, and left me feeling pretty humiliated.

After seeing me jump, screaming, into the pool, my daughter looked down and decided she’d wait a couple more years before trying it.

It turns out that failing in front of your children, or at least making mistakes, is a valuable way of teaching them how life works.

It might go against every fibre of your being, but you’re supposed to show them Daddy is not perfect, as they are so wonderfully willing to believe (at least early on).

If at first you don’t succeed…

It’s a slightly scary thought, but the fact is that kids learn about life from watching you, and their Mum, for most of their waking hours. And for the first few, vital learning years of their lives, you are the two biggest teachers they have.

Indeed, research from the very smart folks at MIT suggests that this learning, and in particular the maxim of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is being drummed into your baby’s brain by your behaviour from a very young age.

An MIT study found that babies as young as 15 months who watched an adult struggle at two different tasks before succeeding would then try harder at their own difficult tasks, compared to babies who saw an adult succeed effortlessly.

“There’s some pressure on parents to make everything look easy and not get frustrated in front of their children,” says Laura Schulz, the senior author of the study and a professor of cognitive science at MIT. “This does at least suggest that it may not be a bad thing to show your children that you are working hard to achieve your goals.”

Resilience, I’m afraid, is one of the words you’ll be hearing a lot about as your children get older, and getting your children to show plenty of it is a common parenting goal.

It turns out you can start the process by openly making mistakes, and then correcting them, from very early on.

Feel the fear of failure and do it anyway, you might say.

Work it, baby

Schulz was prompted to do her research by various recent studies that have explored the value of hard work — or at least watching it — for children.

Some studies have found that a child’s level of what you might call “grit”, or good-old persistence, can predict success in life above and beyond what their IQ suggests.

Children’s beliefs regarding effort also make a difference. It’s been found that children who realise putting in effort leads to better outcomes do better at school than kids who think their success is pre-determined by your level of intelligence.

Schulz and her colleagues were interested in studying how children learn from a very young age: when it’s worth trying hard, and when to just give up and roll around on their bellies farting.

Sure enough, the study found that we learn very early on how to make decisions regarding “effort allocation”.

“We’re a somewhat puritanical culture, especially here in Boston. We value effort and hard work,” Schulz told MIT News. “But really the point of the study is you don’t actually want to put in a lot of effort across the board. Effort is a limited resource. Where do you deploy it, and where do you not?”

Ah yes, “Effort is a limited resource”, I’d like that on a t-shirt.

A lovely demonstration

Kiley Hamlin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, who wasn’t involved in the MIT study, described it as “a lovely demonstration that something we have long thought critical to older children’s, and adults’, likelihood of achieving success in school and in life—persistence on task—can be influenced in infants in the first half of the second year.”

Hamlin said the findings in the study showed two things: “First, infants seem to be learning something about persistence in general, rather than on how to best solve task A or task B specifically.

“Second, influencing our infants’ persistence, at least in the short term, might (ironically) take relatively little effort on our part.”

Yep, when it comes to parenting, it doesn’t get much easier than stuffing up in front of your kids occasionally. Indeed, I’m pretty sure this will come very naturally to most fathers.

While your kids might look at you and think “too big to fail”—in much the same way the US government looked at the banks during the Global Financial Crisis—there’s an important lesson to be learned here.

You—as a dad—are not “too big to fail”.

You’re a dad. A human being. A fallible, mistake-ridden human being who your kids look up to as a wandering, beer-bellied man-god for most of their lives when they’re still too little to know what a bank is.

When they see that even you can get things wrong, it will rock their little worlds.

But when they see you take a moment, think things through, learn from your mistake and try again … they’ll learn that’s the way to approach any hurdle life puts in front of them.

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