Raising kids with "grit"
November 13, 2013 11:48 AM   Subscribe

What can I do as a parent to help my child build persistence, self-discipline, high standards, and work ethic?

My otherwise-delightful, smart, sweet 4.5-year-old seems pretty low on the "grit" scale, even for her age range. She dislikes sustained concentration on a challenging task (even for like 5 minutes at a time); she doesn't ever show a strong interest in anything (bike-riding/crafting/whatever) that'd motivate her to work on her skills; she generally abandons activities the moment she encounters any difficulty; and she's perfectly happy doing a mediocre-to-poor job of things with zero impulse to go back and improve.

Last year, for instance, she got suddenly very into dance and spent hours randomly twirling around the living room to music. We're not much for dance ourselves, but we signed her up for a (very easygoing, low-stress) preschool dance class at the Y, and she spent the entire semester complaining about how she hated dance lessons because they were too long and boring-- even while continuing to enjoy free-form twirling at home. It wasn't that she didn't like dance; she just didn't like doing any work on it.

I realize, of course, that much of this may just be four-year-old-ness: we're definitely not interested in becoming "tiger parents" (ugh) or making a lot of non-age-appropriate demands. But both my husband and I suffered from classic smart-kid/poor-work-ethic syndrome, and we'd really like to give her some of the resources of perseverance and individual drive that we ourselves lack. She certainly doesn't need to follow our dreams, but we would like her to have strong interests of her own, to set goals and work hard to meet them. I'm interested, then, in hearing whether anyone's had any success raising (or being raised as) industrious and self-disciplined children, and if so, what worked for you.

(Of particular interest: methods for getting extrinsic structure to translate into internal self-motivation. On occasion, for instance, we've tentatively tried introducing little bits of structured work into family life, like sitting down together every day for ~10 minutes and sounding out a couple of pages of a book. But there seems to be absolutely no way to incentivize that that doesn't just backfire by making her resistant to the activity itself (so now, even though we rewarded the phonics time and tried to make it positive and fun, she loudly proclaims at every opportunity that she "hates reading!"). And of course, if we didn't have a structure, the activity just wouldn't get done at all, and we'd be back where we started.)

tl;dr I don't want to rob my daughter of her childhood, but also I don't want to raise her to be incapable of sustained work or self-improvement. What's worked for you to raise gritty kids?
posted by Bardolph to Human Relations (44 answers total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
Be engaged in the activity with her and articulate a connection between present work and future success. Kids at that age don't really have a firm grasp on time, cause, or effect.

Or you could chill out... those cognitive leaps will happen on their own.
posted by spunweb at 12:03 PM on November 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Well, you mention dance lessons.

I'm not suggesting that this is in any way the best way to do this, but my mom made me stick it out for years in whatever I got involved in.

I wanted to play the piano when I was four. So my parents got me piano lessons. I wanted to quit piano when I was four and a half. (And five and six and etc etc.) They made me take piano lessons until I was in 6th grade.

I wanted to dance when I was four. I wanted to quit dance when I was six. But I took five years of ballet and four years of tap and four years of jazz and six years of acrobatics.

And so on. I played at least one sport every year until I graduated high school even though by the time I was in middle school I hated it. I was a Girl Scout for 12 years (that one actually paid off, since I'm a troop leader now and love the Scouts).

I thought my parents' requirements were arbitrary and awful, and I was a really busy kid, but it definitely instilled in me the idea that you don't just get to quit things because they're unpleasant or hard. (For what it's worth, no, I do not think you should force your kid to take seven years of piano lessons. Be more reasonable than my mom.)
posted by phunniemee at 12:06 PM on November 13, 2013 [15 favorites]

Don't worry too much yet. Seriously, wait until she's in kindergarten or first grade and has homework and you can talk with other parents and her teacher then. You might be surprised to learn that your kid is doing pretty well.

"persistence, self-discipline, high standards, and work ethic" - most adults I know with those traits attribute very little, if any, of that to their parents. Do you set the example of being hardworking and persistent? I'd say that's most important.

If you've got tiger mom on one side of the spectrum and an absent parent on the other end, I guess you should aim somewhere in the middle. If there were a surefire way to churn out good, hardworking kids, everyone would do it. But there isn't, so trust your instincts, treat your kids like you want to be treated, and have fun.
posted by mattbucher at 12:10 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing to consider: If kids learn to think of abilities as innate or static, they're more likely to decide that their efforts won't make much of a difference. In other words--read this FPP.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:13 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your paragraph about making phonics "fun" and "rewarding" reminds me about a book I recently read: Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting.

It has some pretty astonishing things to say, especially with regard to how well-meaning parents' best efforts can end up achieving the opposite of the desired result.

I recommend that you give it a try.
posted by ZipRibbons at 12:14 PM on November 13, 2013 [8 favorites]

I was your daughter, and although I had decent parents who were devoted and meant well, they always indulged me when I lost the drive or desire to continue something. ANYTHING. I see there's some fear of failure stuff that's wrapped up in there, and I'm sure you are not overbearing or scaring her into failure but if I could change one thing about my childhood it would be having parents that made me finish what I started.

I would say to her that if she starts a class and doesn't like it she doesn't have to take another class, and she doesn't have to be the best in her class, but she just has to show up and finish the one she started.

On preview:

I wanted to play the piano when I was four. So my parents got me piano lessons. I wanted to quit piano when I was four and a half. (And five and six and etc etc.) They made me take piano lessons until I was in 6th grade.

When I was in 3rd grade I got a guitar. I took a few lessons, probably hit the first bit of difficulty and wanted to quit. I bet if I'd been forced to finish just the lessons I was signed up for I would have cleared that hurdle, and maybe today I could play the guitar. Or not. But it also would have taught me respect for the money and time my parents invested in those lessons. I think somewhere between these two experiences there's a happy medium.
posted by Room 641-A at 12:15 PM on November 13, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm a parent of 3 as well as a special education teacher, and the ONE piece of advice I wish someone had given me early on was this:

your kids are who they are. Sure, you can guide. Cajole. Teach. Have fun with them.

But ultimately, she may NOT be a hard worker, she may NOT find value in the things that you find valuable, and you are going to have to be okay with this.
posted by kinetic at 12:17 PM on November 13, 2013 [38 favorites]

Mine's 5 1/2, and also fairly characterized as not that persistent. To be fair, however, I don't see the kind of gritty stubbornness you're describing in very many kids this age. Thinking hard, I've only really seen it in one 5 year old girl, on a soccer field, who was absolutely devastated she missed exactly one of her goal scoring opportunities (though she made her other 3 or 4).

We often resort to bribery. Want to go for ride with training wheels? Show me you can coast on the balance bike. Now for longer. Now for more consecutive times. I'm really impressed with how much progress you made (because I am, truly). Then we deliver the exact reward we agreed upon. No welching, but also no delivery if it doesn't get done. You're going to need to do work to make sure the challenge is truly a stretch while also within their reach, however.

We're already seeing behavior where our son is deciding that the reward isn't worth the effort - and that's OK. He needs to learn to make that choice, too. At some point we're going to introduce the hard truth that rewards aren't fairly distributed, because he'll need to know that, too - but 5's a little early. Maybe 6 :P

Parenting is hard. In addition to bribery the other go-to tool is showing the kid how much better he is at something now vs. before, pretty much purely through practice and putting in the reps. We're lucky in that his personality is game for trying, but he's not the girl we saw on the soccer field - and that's OK.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 12:19 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Having fun isn't how you develop persistence, nor is being jollied along and closely watched by adults. At four she's old enough to have some simple chores like putting her toys away before bed and helping you fold laundry (she can do the socks). Maybe feeding the cat every night before dinner if you have one. Clearing her own plates, putting her dirty clothes in the laundry basket and those kinds of simple daily tasks that she can get in the routine of doing just because things have to get done. No rewards or special treatment needed, just show her what you want done once or twice expect her to do it and leave her to get on with it her own way without your help.
posted by fshgrl at 12:25 PM on November 13, 2013 [16 favorites]

But both my husband and I suffered from classic smart-kid/poor-work-ethic syndrome, and we'd really like to give her some of the resources of perseverance and individual drive that we ourselves lack.

I don't want to get too psychological here, but isn't this stuff related to how you yourselves feel about difficulty, and how you face setbacks etc. So can you model it? Work on something around the house that she can see, and watch you guys keep tackling it? How do you talk to yourselves when you reach a plateau in your skill level? What motivates you to push past "easy"?

You want her to go from immediate to long term reward. Bribery may work here. You can get one marshmallow now, or TWO marshmallows in one hour. Then work up her tolerance? Sticker charts? If you do X all week, you get CANDY (or whatever).

I wonder if this isn't how entrepreneurs feel. Bored by regular motivation/trade offs. Need more immediate feedback for the work. Have you tried a lemonaid stand? Maybe she'd like to make money. What does she value? Free time? Can you show her how structure earns herself free time?

I don't have kids, I'm just throwing some ideas out here.

Finally, I agree, she is who she is. You and your husband have this "flaw" but you're still functional and pay the bills. Not everyone has to be A-type.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:26 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wanted to play the piano when I was four. So my parents got me piano lessons. I wanted to quit piano when I was four and a half. (And five and six and etc etc.) They made me take piano lessons until I was in 6th grade.

A caution: I started piano lessons when I was...seven, maybe? Hated them every single step of the way, was forced to continue for six or seven years. The minute I was allowed to stop, I never touched the piano again except to dust it during chores. Honestly, I attribute my own lack of motivation (which has finally partially cleared up in my late thirties) to being raised in a very strict, heavy-on-the-morality, heavy on the performance expectations household. If anything, what jumps out at me about your question is how you're already making some big character judgments about a child who is still quite small - and believe me, I noticed that stuff and remembered it (both the irrationally positive and the irrationally negative) from my parents when I was also quite small.

Why is it that you and your husband don't have any grit? What do you think made you that way? How might you be replicating those emotional patterns with your child, or still caught up in them yourselves?

Also, if she likes to twirl around the living room to music, that isn't the same as dance class at all. Twirling is about being totally free-form, the thrill and nausea of spinning, etc. Liking to twirl does not mean you'll like dance class.
posted by Frowner at 12:31 PM on November 13, 2013 [13 favorites]

I can't answer your questions very directly, but I have a few thoughts. When I was growing up, my parents' worst parenting fear was clearly that their children would become "entitled". In their opinion, entitlement is the worst of American culture and they were DETERMINED that their children not grow up with that kind of arrogant attitude. Entitlement was the absolute worst thing you could be accused of in my family. My parents were excellent, loving parents - I feel so fortunate - and this was the one area in which their fears about their children were obvious to me. I have crystal clear memories of the few times I argued with my parents - it was always because they thought I was demonstrating this kind of spoiled attitude.

This isn't the same as "not having grit", but it's somewhat related.... I think that the way my parents tried to teach me not to be entitled was to appreciate how fortunate I was, constantly. Even as a small child we often talked about how lucky we were. I wasn't given rewards for helping around the house; it was considered to be part of taking care of our family, and I was expected to understand why participating was important. If I wanted to start any kind of activity, it was always 100% my choice (no really, they NEVER pushed me into anything, and I don't think they ever once asked what my grades were or asked me to do homework), but my parents were always clear that my activities cost money (tuitions, supplies, events) and required their time and energy, and that I wasn't to waste those things. I remember asking them for violin lessons when I was 4.5. They are both professionally-trained musicians, but instead of immediately agreeing, they made me wait for 6 more months to see if I still wanted the lessons. They quizzed me all the time about whether I understood the type of commitment you have to have if you pay a teacher for lessons - commitment to practicing, commitment to fully engaging in lessons, commitment to performing at recitals, etc. I really had to state my case, and I have never forgotten it.

Caveat: I was a super-driven child from the very beginning, and because of that, my parents' concern about entitlement ended up leaving me with a sense of shame about having "phases". You know when you're really into something for a while, and then you're not? I ended up feeling really embarassed if I didn't stick with every little interest, and I would try to hide it. My parents did not intend that, of course - I just took it a little farther than they meant for me to.
posted by Cygnet at 12:31 PM on November 13, 2013 [11 favorites]

Are you open to a little study? I'd recommend Nurtureshock (in particular the chapter on executive function) and Bringing up Bebe (not a parenting manual, more of a memoir, but has a lot of insights into how American-style, super-achievement-oriented parenting can and does backfire).

Also, what fshgrl said, times a thousand.
posted by trunk muffins at 12:32 PM on November 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

The early childhood research-oriented answer (which I expect you're interested in from your use of the term "grit") is to set high expectations for your child with consequences for failure, but assist them in meeting those expectations.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:34 PM on November 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I recently read a report which compared the effects of praising children for being smart vs. praising children for putting in the good work necessary for results. It seemed that children who were rewarded for being smart had a harder time pushing through when tasks got difficult; whereas children who were rewarded for working were better able to keep going when the task exceeded their innate ability. You make the praise not about who they are, but about what they do toward a thing they want or a task that's necessary.

I don't know much about when kids can learn focus and discipline, nor do I know much about when requiring a child to stick with lessons for something that thought they'd like but don't becomes counter-productive. Nonetheless, there certainly seems to me a logic in praising a kid for focusing and hard work when that's the behavior you're trying to reinforce. So, you don't get the child to stick with dance lessons by praising how beautiful and fun dancing is or by being proud when she stars in the show (although, of course, you are!), but by admiring her ability to work hard at something and recognizing that her effort is the valuable part.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:35 PM on November 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

We had our daughters do swim classes starting around 2 years old.
While they didn't always like it, but also often loved them, they really liked being able to go from not swimming at all to being good swimmers.

The swim lesson place also had a ribbon system which really motivated the kids.

I liked the swim lessons since it was a weekly lesson that required work and had a real payoff in skills.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:37 PM on November 13, 2013

I agree that she is a bit young. I had the attention span of a gnat at that age, and now most people would use terms like persistence, high standards, self-discipline, and strong work ethic to describe the adult me. I also in no way had found my passion at the age of 4, and tried and dropped various activities. My parents expected me to stick to a class they signed me up for if I had expressed interest in it, but if I was not in to it they did not make me take further classes after finishing that initial one. Flute lessons, drawing, painting, ceramics, glass, various sports, horseback riding .... all tried and discarded. (Did I mention that as an adult I'm known for my persistence.)

The best thing you can do for your daughter right now is to model the values you want to her have, including making sure she sees what you are passionate about and that you follow through with things, but don't try too actively to "teach" her at this age. Also, in terms of the reading, at this stage just read to her things that you both enjoy, and don't make it into work/phonics. It's also ok to get her to finish what she starts, certainly, but she is probably going to be trying out a lot of things all the way through college and beyond.

I also agree with fshgrl that she does not get a pass on being part of the family, and simple tasks that she can do at her age like helping to put her toys into a basket or box should be things she starts to do as a contributing member of the family, with age appropriate additions. These things ultimately can actually be fun sometimes, and I actually have happy memories of helping my parents to rake leaves, wash the car, sort and fold laundry, and do kitchen prep and cleanup, plant bulbs or flowers, as ways of helping contribute to the family.

Finally, it is not too young for her to start learning a bit to think about others. Does she have a few old clothes or toys that can be donated to charity, and will you take her along to do that? There are lots of holiday activities like arranging for toys for kids for Christmas, and perhaps she could help you pick something out for a child in need. Can she help a younger sibling, neighbor or cousin learn a skill she already knows? I remember helping my sister with basic things like coloring and such, which made me feel very grown up and accomplished.
posted by gudrun at 12:42 PM on November 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Mindset. Highly recommended.
posted by O9scar at 12:45 PM on November 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

How to raise kids with grit? That is the ultimate question. I think every parent would like to know. I think one of the best things to do to encourage grit is to be a good role-model. Your kids need to see you persevere even if things aren't going so well at first.

I have two kids, ages 10 and 13. They are both pretty self-motivated. They are easy-going. Don't want to quit much and handle disappointment well.

4.5 is young. Once she goes to school she will have more to challenge her.

Some things we did (not claiming to be experts by any means):

1. Have a set homework time.
2. Expectations: My husband and I expect their best effort. I tell them that I want to see As on the report card. If their best effort earns them a B, that's okay, but most of the time I know they can make As.
3. Not allowed to quit once they sign up. Convey the idea that they are part of a team and therefore cannot let team down by quitting.
4. Discourage whining and encourage perseverance. Both of my kids had a habit of whining once they started a new song on the piano. I would encourage them, kindly demand that they learn the new song, and remind them that they thought the last song was difficult but they eventually learned it.
5. Set bed time.
6. No allowance.
7. No monetary reward for good grades. No big hoopla or presents for good grades. We do say we are very proud, and they should be proud of their hard work, but we don't reward them with material things for good grades. We remind them that a job well done is its own reward.
8. No blowing smoke. We are honest with them. If they make a great play or have a good hit, we are sure to congratulate them but if they don't do well, we never sugarcoat. We point out the good things that happened and remind them there is always another game.
9. Intolerant of bullshit excuses. Intolerant of blaming.
10. Encourage their talents. Encourage their ideas and interests.

Also, if you have a kid who is content with sitting on the sidelines of life, it's my opinion that you have to gently force your kid to do things. If they try something and give it their best shot, and don't want to do it again, that's one thing. If they make a decision not to try at all, that's not okay.
posted by Fairchild at 12:50 PM on November 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

In addition to the great suggestions mentioned already, you may want to consider getting her evaluated for adhd, particularly since you and your husband had similar problems as children. ADHD runs in families, and "smart-kid/poor-work-ethic", being constantly bored, and abandoning activities when they become difficult are classic signs of it (although of course not every kid or adult with poor work ethic has a medical reason!).

She's a bit too young to worry about it for now, but it might be something to think about if she still has the same kinds of problems in a few years.
posted by randomnity at 12:59 PM on November 13, 2013

Not every person (child or adult) is going to be the nose-to-the-grindstone personality. It's possible that this type of personality you're trying to instill is just not who she is. And that's ok. Figure out what she does like, what does motivate/interest her, and try to foster that, recognizing that it may change over time (and that time scales differently for children -- a year to a 4 year old is 25% of their life). Boredom=/= inability to succeed. I love dancing at weddings and around my apartment, I loathed dance classes. The two are not at all the same thing. I like reading, I hated English class. Some people are just not class-oriented learners. Some people just don't want to focus on one thing for forever and a day. I rarely keep the same hobby for more than a year (once I've come to a base level of mastery). Learning new hobbies is my hobby. So, no, I'm not the best knitter, chef, painter, musician, dog trainer, computer programmer, photographer, seamstress who ever lived, but I can do all of these things to a decent degree if prompted. I enjoy being a Jack of All Trades (master of some). I hate feeling obligated to keep investing in an activity due to some sunk cost of previous investment in that activity. I don't see any merit in self-flagellation.

Maybe Montessori methods and activities like those in Teach Me to Do It Myself would be good for her.

Not everyone has to be the best at everything, or even at anything. The chances of her being a world-renowned dancer/bike-rider/crafter are quite slim. Focus your energy on things that will actually impact her adult self (eating healthily, hygiene/cleanliness, speaking eloquently, being kind to others). Dedication to hobbies is not one of these things. Maybe she won't have "grit" as you've defined it, but maybe she'll be a warm, caring, insightful individual with a wonderful group of friends and a stable job that pays the bills. Is that so horrible?
posted by melissasaurus at 1:01 PM on November 13, 2013 [13 favorites]

You are not valuing her play enough. Play is how children learn. That twirling that she is having so much fun with is the best way for her to keep at it, not being funneled into structured lessons at five. Incentivizing things she loves and making them feel like work is a good way to push her to quit them. Even giving a kid a good grade or reward for something they otherwise love to do will often train them not to do it unless they are rewarded. In other words, I'm saying, gently, step back a bit. Let her play, because play is the hard work of childhood, even if it doesn't look like it to us.

A S Neill might be instructive.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:03 PM on November 13, 2013 [25 favorites]

This is pretty basic but in discussions with a friend who has a kid in a Waldorf school their method of teaching younger children can sometimes seem a bit counter-intuitive and sometimes too basic but what they are doing is establishing patterns of doing things and of how to approach ideas and topics which lays the groundwork for much stronger learning later in the school process. The reason I mention that is the underlying idea of starting small but being consistent and building on that.
There certainly are criticisms of Waldorf, many of them seem specific to individual schools and who is running them rather then the methods themselves
I only offer this as an avenue to explore and don't have specific example how to establish those routines or as a recommendation for that particular school system, though it may be worth investigating.

OF COURSE she finds dance class boring compared with just free-form dancing
posted by edgeways at 1:16 PM on November 13, 2013

I firmly believe that while parents certainly can screw up their kids, they don't have nearly as much influence in the other direction. As mentioned above, the best you can do is model the behavior you want to see, and give her opportunities to find her muse, without trying to force her into your version of successful. When she finds her thing, the grit will be there, because it will matter to her then.

Example - my daughter found her thing at age 7. She just won a national championship in it last weekend at 17. We've never had to push her because she was driven internally to succeed at this thing that matters to her. Meanwhile I'm 45 and I still haven't found my thing. Nor I have won any national championships.

So relax and help your daughter explore the world. Maybe she finds her thing, maybe she doesn't.
posted by COD at 1:25 PM on November 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding crush-onastick - you have to praise effort rather than results.

Praising kids for being smart, or being good at things, can make them afraid to try anything new, and reluctant to continue anything that seems hard. If you always get praised for making things seem easy, then being persistent isn't good, it only calls attention to your failure. If you try something new that doesn't come easily, maybe your parents and friends will realize that you aren't really smart, aren't athletic, aren't whatever-quality-you-normally-get-praised-for, because you didn't immediately succeed. To kids who are praised for aptitude or results, it seems better to avoid failure by avoiding anything difficult.

Instead, praising kids for hard work and persistence encourages them to keep trying, even when things aren't easy. This FPP on the subject is the 9th most popular metafilter post of all time. Check it out.
posted by vytae at 1:28 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

First - don't fret too much. While you can have an impact (from what you are, more than what you do) imo 90% of what a kid is going to be is set at birth. I think all you can really do is give her structures that will help her surmount the annoyances of her own nature in future years.

We have a five year old daughter and from day one I was keen that she be more focused and less lazy than her parents. I made sure that I always said 'good work' when she did something well, and had a formula (something like 'keep on trying until you get it right') when she was doing blocks or whatever. While I don't think I've changed her any, I do hear her mutter that to herself from time to time, which I guess means it got through.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:34 PM on November 13, 2013

This is a really hot topic, and despite people's individual convictions about how to do it, there isn't really a trusty set of rules. Even psychologist Angela Duckworth, who is pretty much the leading authority on grit, isn't exactly sure: (emphasis mine)
...people often ask me if you can teach these things, if this character can be cultivated. This is the answer I’d like to give – I think so. But we know very little about how to do that. We know more and more everyday, but we don’t have enough to say, very convincingly, that you just have to do x, y, and z. We don’t know what parenting interactions are important. We don’t know which early educational experiences are crucial. We don’t know what kind of teacher you meet. Maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe it’s having a lot of hardship. Maybe adversity earlier is better than success. It could be the opposite. So our ignorance is vast. To quote Sir John Templeton, who actually indirectly through his foundation provided my first funding as a graduate student to work on this, “How little we know, how eager to learn.” That’s my answer for the question “Can perseverance be taught?”: I think so, but we’re just getting started.
posted by purpleclover at 2:22 PM on November 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

For the last several years, Montessori preschool has worked wonders for our kids (a boy, age 6, who now attends a Montessori elementary school, and a girl, age 4). There is no better educational model for helping kids to develop a sense of intrinsic motivation, and to practice working on challenging tasks that demand sustained concentration. Montessori is life-changing - go visit a Montessori school near you.
posted by hush at 2:26 PM on November 13, 2013

It's funny - purely from reading that description, I don't get "no grit" from what you've said. I get rebellion and stubbornness... If you tell her to do it, she doesn't want to do it. If she's forced into it, she immediately pushes back. After all, it sounds like she does have a sustained interest in free-form twirling and - as you yourself note - it seems like very little "hard work" could possibly have been demanded of the pre-schoolers at the Y.

My guess is that she didn't respond badly to the work involved in either pre-K dance class or beginning reading...she responded badly to the fact that she could sense you two were super invested in her performance, and she pushed back. Kids are so perceptive about this, and at a crazily young age. I once drove a little girl I know to "hate reading" in the exact same way: by caring so much about her enjoyment of it that it ruined her fun. I also remember my little brother - who couldn't have been more than six at the time - being told by my parents to do something at the dinner table, and saying wonderingly, as though he'd had some kind of spiritual epiphany: "I was going to do that myself, but now that you want me to, I can't do it right away."

All kids have this in them to some extent, but I think some are very prone to it. Honestly, I wish I had more of this in me - stubbornness and grit aren't actually that different, when you get down to it; the go-along, get-along, 'all I care about is pleasing authority figures' attitude that makes particularly malleable children doesn't necessarily pay off in adulthood.

However, I think this dynamic is particularly likely to surface when parents try to control how children feel instead of what they do. Consider the extent of your tyranny, from your daughter's perspective: you made her go to the stupid dance lessons every week, for the whole goddamned semester, even though she didn't want to, but that wasn't enough for you! No, you want her to love them. But while you can force her to dance, you can't make her enjoy it! And since it turns out that you don't actually care about the dance lessons, you only care about her attitude, suddenly this is a power struggle she can actually win.

To combat this, I'd take a step back and do your best to try and disengage from your daughter's emotions and focus solely on behavior. If she does the reading, great! If she goes to the dance classes, great! If you have a rule about complaining, then go ahead and enforce it. But try to truly be okay with your daughter feeling whatever she feels - because that is something you're never going to be able to control.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 2:27 PM on November 13, 2013 [15 favorites]

"Last year, for instance, she got suddenly very into dance and spent hours randomly twirling around the living room to music."

This IS intrinsic motivation and sustained interest, for a four year old! And then you took her intrinsic interest and tried for force it to being extrinsic!

Children at this age learn through play. Having large amounts of free play time, without adult guidance or interference, encourages them to explore and to develop the sorts of habits of resilience that eventually develop into "grit." Children given free play opportunities learn to experiment, try things, solve problems, etc., in a low-stakes environment, and they learn to do it BY THEMSELVES without needing an adult to intervene. That's what builds resilience.

Of COURSE she doesn't like doing any "work" on dance; that kind of work is meaningless to four-year-olds, and fairly non-productive at that age. HER WORK IS PLAY. When you try to direct her play, you're turning it from a productive, brain-enhancing experience of the world into something useless to her developing brain. (Well, not useless. But not nearly as useful as experimenting with twirling for hours on end.) If she's really excited by dance, find a low-key way you can expose her to dance -- maybe a local ballet school would let her come watch one of the high-level teenage classes? Or get her a ribbon on a stick to wave around while she spins. Or a tutu. Or take her to go dance barefoot on the grass and see how that feels on her feet. Or make one side of the room bright and the other dark and dance with your eyes closed. Stream a video of the Joffrey Ballet on Netflix and let her watch as much or as little as she wants.

Right now your parenting task, w/r/t grit and resilience, isn't to make her stick to things, but to give her space to explore and play and to give her a diversity of experiences.

Also, from a more personal perspective, one of the messages I think you're giving her right now is that nothing is worth doing unless you're doing it well, and I think that self-talk is very common among smart-but-lazy people, who are often afraid to take on the early stages of learning new skills because so much of their self-image is wrapped up in being perceived as smart and competent. One of the most revelatory experiences of my life was when I got roped into doing something I was terrrrrrrrible at (golf) and my failure at it DIDN'T MATTER. The golf was not actually fun in and of itself, but realizing that the world didn't end and nobody gave me an F at life just for being truly, inherently, unfixably terrible at something. And that I could still have fun while being awful at something. You see a lot of really smart people who are afraid to start businesses or submit their short stories for publication or apply for awards or whatever because they're afraid to fail, and I think a lot of that starts with the self-talk about "everything you do is worth doing well."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:37 PM on November 13, 2013 [32 favorites]

even though we rewarded the phonics time and tried to make it positive and fun

She's likely to enjoy reading more, do more of it for fun, and become a faster reader if you don't treat it as an area to build her work ethic in that you have to make "fun".

You can have a structure without delimiting as the special 10 minutes where you are doing "work", find a pleasant way to incorporate reading into her life. One of the most prolific readers I know came from a family with a tradition of reading to each other aloud after dinner.

It wasn't that she didn't like dance; she just didn't like doing any work on it.

Almost ALL kids like free form moving around to music. Almost ALL four year olds will find a dance class longer than 45 minutes to be boring. A dance class for a four year old is supposed to be a fun activity that just happens to teach them about movement and other things on the side, not something where they feel they are doing work to meet some goal.

Trying to turn perfectly normal kid playing and having fun sort of things into something you get invested in her having a strong interest in doing and working to improve and have high standards sounds like the very best way to drive her away from what you want to instill.
posted by yohko at 2:44 PM on November 13, 2013

This is from the point of view of an educator, not a parent.

You need to be very clear on what you can reasonably expect of your child given her stage of development. A lot of angst can be avoided if parents understand what is developmentally appropriate for their children, and do not push them to do more than they're ready for.

PhoBWanKenobi and Eyebrows McGee are right. Play is how your daughter is learning right now. Being "bored" by structured dance class (yes, even a low-stress, preschool appropriate dance class) is totally normal at that stage of development. Do not take this as any sort of sign that she will not have "grit" or persistence later on because she prefers twirling around by herself in the living room; she is learning and developing skills appropriately right now.

I am honestly not trying to frighten you, but current research suggests when parents and educators try to impose non-age-appropriate expectations on children, it can actually drive their skill development backwards. You might want to read Dr. Lilian Katz' work on ECE and developmental appropriateness.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:47 PM on November 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

One experience I had as a child which is still affecting my sticktoitiveness well into adult life, even with stuff I'm highly motivated to do, is that I grew up in a perfectionistic household where process was hidden and product was everything. That is, mistakes and transient states of chaos were shameful and to be hidden, rather than part of the natural process of learning and creativity.

I never saw my parents doing things they couldn't do well. The learning/screwing-up/figuring-out process involved would have been ANATHEMA to them. From this my child-mind gathered that other people were magically endowed with whatever abilities they had and that effort or exertion or revision on my part meant I was dumb and misguided and ungifted and that I shouldn't persist.

You say you and your partner lack the qualities you're trying to encourage in your daughter. It's not too late to cultivate them in yourself. Why not take up something new and soldier through the learning curve? Maybe if your household is one where your child regularly sees the people around her embracing mistakes, uncertainty, frustration, obstacles and setbacks, or even enjoying them, she will be less afraid of the sensation of effort.

Alternatively, John Holt's How Children Learn makes a powerful case for relaxing, standing back and trusting in children's innate drive to learn.
posted by stuck on an island at 2:48 PM on November 13, 2013 [18 favorites]

My daughter is 4 and a bit. We talk about the times she has shown extreme persistence in learning (aka "you can't wear those shoes to kindy until you can buckle them yourself" *an hour of quietness* "Mama I can buckle them now! I will wear them tomorrow!") and also the work that we do. She sees me work hard to perfect something, to be able to do something, and fail and fail again and get frustrated and try. She sees her father do the same thing. So we model that grit, that trying, that hard work, in a really conscious way.

As adults we often don't engage in difficult things - we learned how to do them ages ago. So our kids don't see us struggle and don't see us deal and can't learn how from us because even if we do struggle to learn or do something, it's often in a non-family context.

She also sees us play games where one or more of the adults sucks, and it's just a fun game while we get better.

So with reading we talk about the actual rewards (you get to read whatever book you want all on your own instead of waiting for us!) rather than having a system - particularly since she's not at an age where we can expect her to actually read. Same with the jobs around the house - she has her jobs, and we call what we do our jobs as well (I wash up, she helps put away clean stuff) and that's just what it is. There's no reward, it just is the work we do to keep the house tidy. We also quite openly talk about scutwork - you know, the irritating crapwork you get and have to do - so she knows that come school time, she's gonna have homework and there's no intrinsic reward, no extrinsic reward, it's just busywork with a punishment attached for noncompliance.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:49 PM on November 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

I would suggest two things:

1) Quit it with the "phonics" stuff right now. If you and your husband like to read, and you read to her, and she sees you reading your own books yourselves, and there are lots of cool books in the house, your kid will be a great reader. But if you make it a chore that she has to do before she's allowed to do fun stuff, she will dread it and hate it and not want to make it a big part of her life. She'll read when she wants to, and in a few years, it won't matter whether she read at 4 or 5 or 6 or 7. I learned how to read when I was 5. My sister read at 3 (because I, the overbearing older sister, made her). She was very precocious. Now, we both read the same. Just drop it, and let it be a thing people do because it's enjoyable, not a thing people do because it's Time to Practice Reading to Develop Important Life Skills.

2) You and your husband should each take up and seriously pursue a hobby you suck at. A musical instrument, a new sport, a foreign language, whatever. Pick up something you're bad at, and start practicing. And let her see you practice. Take her with you to batting practice, and mutter words in Italian to yourself around the house, and play scales on the tuba for an hour every other day. Don't comment on it or talk about how it's hard but good for you. Just do it, and make it a part of your life, and let her watch. This will be good for your family for a few reasons. First, if your worries stem from the fact that you are bad at this "grit" thing, your first order of business should be to fix that in yourself, not to try to make your kid some sort of do-over for what you wish you were like. Work on your own stuff. Second, the way to teach your kid that it's important to try hard at things you're not good at so that you can get better at them isn't to have a long, boring conversation in which you tell her that; it's to model the behavior for her so that she can see the work and the payoff. Let her see that if you work hard, you get better, and it gets more fun. And third, kids have intense radars for hypocrisy. If you want your kid to eat her vegetables, you have to eat yours. And your kid sounds like she's contrarian (in a good way) enough to see right through this "do as I say, not as I do" stuff, and to refuse to do it just because you're trying to make her do something you don't have to do yourself. Don't make it the subject of a lecture ("See, Mommy is practicing her model ship building because practice makes perfect and hard work is a virtue!"). Just do it, and let her see it, and let it be simply something that people in her life do. She'll pick up on that, and that's the best way for her to learn.
posted by decathecting at 6:21 PM on November 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

Intensity and persistence are rather in-grained traits, according to a lot of the research (rundown here, sorry for the Wikipedia link - this is covered in Brazelton's Touchpoints, Kurcinka's Raising Your Spirited Child and other books.) Fighting her natural impulses will be really difficult at this age (and I would argue not worth it).

For reading, check out The Read-Aloud Handbook which has a lot of great ideas about how to help kids become eager readers. Turning it into a chore will backfire on you.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:41 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: (Since people are mentioning it, I just want to go on record as saying that the phonics/reading thing was not my idea, and not something I considered particularly developmentally appropriate, but parenting is a partnership and I didn't want to pee on Mr. B's parade. I do think it's a good example of the kind of difficult dynamic we get into when trying to introduce any kind of structure, which is why I included it. Thanks for the great suggestions, all, and keep 'em coming!)
posted by Bardolph at 6:49 PM on November 13, 2013

Praise effort, not results. Praise effort, not talent. When you see your daughter trying something, praise how hard she's working at it. When she succeeds, praise the work it took to get there, not whether she's displaying a lot of talent or smarts based on the quality of the product. There's been a lot of articles put out about the importance of praising effort over talent in children, Carol Dweck is a good name to look up for research.

Kids have to be taught the value of work itself before they can start enjoying it in the context of an activity. You will always, always fail to teach her the value of work if you try to shove it under the heading of "fun". Work and struggle isn't fun. If we expect life and our hobbies must be fun all the time, then we'll quit everything we try because at some point everything will stop being fun.

So I think the people suggesting you make sure she does chores and little tasks around the house are on the right track. The best way to teach independence is to teach her to take care of herself. She can make simple sandwiches, pour a bowl of cereal, and wash the dishes afterwards. The sandwich will be messier and uglier than something you guys could do, and the dishes perhaps not quite as perfectly clean, but the point is to not have a perfect sandwich but to have a kid who starts developing confidence in her ability to try difficult things and persevere through them. I remember reading an article where the author compared the self-sufficiency of a four-year-old girl in an Amazon tribe to her own sons. She tried to get her sons to take out the trash, but they didn't secure the lid so raccoons got in and made a mess. Her conclusion was it was easier for her to just keep taking out the trash. Of course, this is ridiculous. What you do is make the sons clean up the trash outside and then keep having them take out the trash until they do so in a way that the raccoons don't get into it.

Anyway that's not going to teach your girl to persevere in dance immediately, but it will help create a work ethic that will translate into other areas of her life.
posted by Anonymous at 8:49 PM on November 13, 2013

Oh man, no, do not sign your kid up for dance lessons because she enjoys dancing at home. If you do that, what was previously a fun, uncomplicated, not-emotionally-fraught area of her life, which she was approaching at her own pace, has just become an area under her parents' control in which she is in danger of disappointing them. You're lucky she still does it at home at all -- as kids get older, one response to this kind of thing is to quit doing it completely so as to avoid giving their parents any more ideas.

Anyhow, what does that have to do with grit? Grit means persisting towards a goal you want to accomplish or know you have to accomplish, not persisting towards some goal that your parents have picked out at random based on what they think you like. For her, this is probably kind of like if your boss sent you an email saying that, since you seem to enjoy spending a lot of time on this computer thing, it would be both fun and beneficial for your concentration and work ethic for you to devote your time after work to getting really, really good at Call of Duty, and you are going to be required to practice it several hours a week.

Rather, now is probably a good time to start teaching her household skills, giving her household chores and responsibilities, and holding her to them. For, say, dance, she's going to feel like the focus is on her and Her Personal Development, which is stressful; for folding laundry, the focus is on the task itself, not on her, which is way less stressful. It's much easier for a kid to comprehend and get comfortable with the fact that she needs to get a necessary household task done than with the idea that she needs to be working on Her Personal Development. (And I can guarantee that she is on some level picking up the fact that that's why you're doing this.) Then let her leisure time and her leisure activities be her own, so that she doesn't end up feeling like she has to hide her interests from you or they'll immediately be taken out of her control. (Making a kid continue in something they asked to start is different, but that's been covered upthread and it seems like you're not quite at that stage yet anyway.)

Finally, I get that this is a totally natural and to some extent unavoidable part of parenting, but I really urge you to suppress the urge to think things like "incapable of sustained work or self-improvement" about your child, even as a hypothetical. I mean actively suppress it. Not because it's mean or unloving or anything like that, but because kids can tell what specific fears their parents have about them, and even if you're not actually judging them, they will end up judging themselves.
posted by ostro at 12:18 AM on November 14, 2013 [7 favorites]

You raise gritty kids by making life hard for them, by forcing them to work for everything they want. You have to ask yourself whether that's what you want to do to your kid. Depression-era kids may have developed a lot of grit -- "I had to deliver newspapers rain or shine at dawn, if there was a dawn, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for five years to save up for the shot gun I used to use to shoot squirrels for our lunch." -- but as a parent would you wish your children to grow up like that?

However, it is good to raise healthy kids who get outside and get some exercise with the family. (I bet you could also use some exercise, right?) Make their lives physically a little harder and teach them a little grit at the same time as they put one foot in front of another for a long time. For example: Saturday morning, you tell her that we (you, spouse, kid) are all taking the bus or train to X (or Aunt Someone is driving us there and dropping us off) and we are going to walk home. We are taking water with us. No snacks and no electronics. (If it's a very long walk, maybe a small healthy picnic lunch to stop and eat along the way.) If we ever want to get home again, darling, we are going to walk, and it's going to take us X minutes or hours to get there even if we don't flop on the ground and complain about sore feet. Then you all get fresh air, a nice walk, plenty of exercise, no staring at a screen and munching on snacks, and plenty of time to look at the real world and talk about things. If that goes well, do it again every Saturday morning, same route every time or different routes if you need variety.
posted by pracowity at 3:29 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love the advice you've gotten with regard to play and modelling behavior. I definitely learned to work hard from watching my parents work hard, despite the fact that I was pretty lazy about anything other than homework as a kid. The stubbornness others are picking up on? One day that will turn into persistence.

I wanted to add: I'm beginning to think that emotional resiliency is a more valuable life skill than work ethic, etc. Things go wrong, and if you can deal with them well, the benefits are enormous. I actual think of emotional resiliency as a sort of grit without the grittiness, if that makes any sense. This book is good for that topic.

I am not a parent nor an educator.
posted by purple_bird at 10:32 AM on November 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Adam Carolla has gone into the virtue of grit on his podcasts with Dr.Drew. It is true that too many have it too easy. One of the things I love about the culture of LDS people is they seem to get this, and seem to have a culture that has a certain boot camp phase, on missions and before.

Not getting everything you want, and working for things you get for is very important. Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is a BIG advocate of the idea that happiness can only be earned, which is, I suppose, a corollary of grit...
posted by NiceParisParamus at 2:03 PM on November 16, 2013

My daughter (5) is very much like your daughter, most of the time. She is, however, enrolled in a Yokomine kindergarten here in Japan, which really gets a lot out of their kids. The Yokomine method operates on "four switches" for kids, namely:
the competitive switch, the challenge switch, the mimic switch and the assessment switch.

Some things, like gymnastics, (she's well on the way to walking on her hands) she's crazy about, and constantly practices. Others, like playing the melodica, are so-so. However, she is competent in all the stuff they practice at kindergarten (reading, writing, basic math.)

As far as I can tell, the kids at the school are engaged, happy and enthusiastic about what they're doing. It's pretty cool to see it in action at the big year-end event they hold.

For the original Japanese, see this site.
posted by brappi at 7:31 PM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Video of Yokomine in action.
posted by brappi at 7:34 PM on November 18, 2013

« Older A Broad, Abroad, Alone   |   Young, Cancer, Abroad Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.