5 Ways to Help Kids Develop Grit Because Self-Esteem is Overrated

5 Ways to Help Kids Develop Grit Because Self-Esteem is Overrated8 min read

If you’ve been concerned that your child’s low self-esteem might keep him or her from reaching their full potential, think again. Parents need to help kids develop grit.

If you completed college Psychology 101 like I did, you learned that self-esteem is measured by the amount of positive regard people have for themselves. Perhaps you, like me, walked away from that class with the impression that achieving a high amount of self-esteem is necessary for happiness, success and better life choices. This idea is due in part to the teaching of psychologist Abraham Maslow.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow is best known for his “hierarchy of needs.” The needs, when mastered, enable self-actualization. Self-actualization, in Maslow’s definition, is recognition and realization of your greatest potential.

Sounds good. But, Maslow’s way of realizing your greatest potential relies on developing and mastering a positive self-esteem. Neither the Bible nor science support this notion.

Researchers from four major universities looked at the scientific literature on self-esteem, and came to the following conclusions:
• High self-esteem doesn’t improve school performance, but strong school performance boosts self-esteem.
• Self-esteem has not been shown to predict the quality or duration of relationships.
• Leadership doesn’t stem from high self-esteem.
• High self-esteem does not prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs, or engaging in early sex. Children with high self-esteem appear more likely to experiment with these things.

The Bible identifies God as the source of our greatest potential. As I say, God designed you to thrive. In fulfilling His plan for us, God “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,” (Ephesians 3:30 ESV).

Of the personal qualities we can develop, Maslow’s hierarchy is missing grit. The latest science says grit is essential to becoming all that you can be. To become all that God designed us to be, the Bible calls us to be steadfast and persevere (1 Corinthians 15:58, 2 Peter 1:5-6, James 1:2-4), and to endure (Luke 21:19)—these are synonyms for grit.

What is Grit and How Do You Get It?

Grit is defined as courage and resolve. It comes from a strong sense of who you are. It fuels the perseverance that keeps us going when the going gets rough. It helps us stand up when faced with opposition.

Angela Duckworth, a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is one of the leading researchers of human grit. Duckworth recently published many of her findings in her bestselling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Her popular TED Talk on grit has been viewed over 10 million times! Her studies have identified five traits of people who have high levels of grit. These traits can be developed in children (and adults) to help them thrive in the face of opposition and oppression.

1) Support Their Interests

Your child may not apply for, or graduate with the right major, or land the perfect job their first time out. I changed my college major twice, and have changed my career path at least four times since graduating with my bachelor’s degree. I was almost 50 when I discovered my passion for doing what I do now.

Discovering one’s calling requires exploration. Some discover the treasure early, and for others it happens later in life.

At three or four years old, most children learn the power of asking “why.” Kids at this age are naturally curious. Their interest in the world drives them to ask questions.

Around 11 to 12 years old, kids develop curiosity about different vocations that draws them toward some, and away from others. It’s unlikely they’ll settle on a career choice at this age. They need more information.

Don’t act hastily by pushing your child to make a career choice. Encourage them to explore their interests, and to be curious about vocations that might look unappealing at first glance. Some careers might look uninteresting to a person until they see it up close.

A foundation for developing grit is laid when we find an interest that we’re so passionate about, we choose to pursue it with passion. It’s unlikely to happen while your child is living at home. It’s more likely to take years.
As your child explores interests, encourage them.

2) Encourage Deliberate Practice

A notable difference between individuals who develop grit and those who don’t is how they practice what they want to master.

The average person puts in the time with little regard for what they’re learning or how they’re developing their skill. They watch the clock. The person who excels pursues their passion with intensity, looks for their weaknesses, and puts all their effort into developing strengths. They focus on themselves and their performance.

Perhaps you have noticed that children who master a musical instrument, such as the violin, are often above average in their educational and career achievements. The mastery of the instrument helped them develop grit.

The practice required for mastery of a skill requires an intensity that is above average. That’s why it’s important for a child to choose to master something they enjoy. Their passion for their interest will sustain them through hours of learning and difficult practice sessions.

The pursuit of a skill until it’s mastered teaches a child that success comes from perseverance. Tell your child that you’re impressed with their efforts to develop mastery. Help them celebrate major milestones, like winning competitions, earning diplomas or certificates, or making sales. Mastery of a skill will cultivate a sense of accomplishment that will give a child confidence in their ability to face, tackle and solve new challenges in school, work, and relationships.

3) Cultivate Purpose

Help your child develop a sense of purpose for what they choose to master. Mastery that is only self-serving is empty. To develop grit, a child’s purpose needs to be tied to something greater than self-interest.

When asked, persons with a high-caliber of grit will tell you they pursue their passion for a greater good. For example, their purpose may be tied to serving God, to serving or improving their community, or benefiting their spouse or children.

Three bricklayers were asked what they were doing. The first said, “I’m laying bricks.” He had a job. The second said, “I’m building a church.” He had a career. The third answered, “I’m building the house of God.” He’d found his purpose.

People with grit often view themselves as having a calling. The greater their sense of purpose, the higher they measure in grit.

Explore with your child how mastering their passion will make the world a better place for at least one other person. It will help if you’ve identified your own sense of purpose for what you pursue with passion, and talk about it with your child.

4) Instill Hope

People with grit explain setbacks optimistically. Rather than focus on their failures, people with grit focus on what they can learn from failure.

Help your child develop what researchers have called a “growth mindset.” The growth mindset is the belief that people can change and develop new skills that change us physically. People with a growth mindset stand in contrast to people with a “fixed mindset.” The fixed mindset is the belief that people’s capacity to learn skills is physically limited.

It was once believed intelligence was fixed over the span of a person’s life. In other words, a person’s ability to solve problems was thought to be determined by their heredity and would thus limit what they could achieve in life. Science has since demonstrated that intelligence can be improved and brain structure changed by exercising the problem-solving ares of our brain, such as by learning new math skills.

Encourage optimistic self-talk by the way you talk with your child by thrilling them you believe in their ability to learn and grow. Cheer them on when you hear them use optimistic self-talk, especially when the going gets rough. And encourage them to ask for help when they have trouble being hopeful.

5) Choose Gritty Friends

In the United States, scouting has a legacy of helping kids develop grit, preparing them to succeed as adults. Former Boy Scouts who have thrived as adults include civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., former President John F. Kennedy, and baseball legend Hank Aaron. Former Girl Scouts include who have thrived as adults include First Ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, and tennis champion Venus Williams.

Peer pressure has a powerful influence on kids. While much has been said about the negative influences of peer pressure, positive peer pressure can help kids become better versions of themselves.

We’ve all experienced it. The norms and values of the people we spend the most time with eventually become our norms and values. We become the sum of the people we spend the most time with.

Help your child choose friends and associates that challenge them to grow. Scouting clubs, 4-H, and church youth groups are examples of organized efforts that are often designed to challenge kids with above-average norms and values.

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How are you helping your child develop grit? What helped you develop grit? What signs of grit do you see in yourself or your child? Tell me about it in a comment below, with a Voice Mail, Facebook Messenger or the Contact Me form. 


Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Jon Beaty

I'm a counselor, writer and believer in the power of God to help you thrive in your marriage and family. I live with my family, a small herd of Boer goats, and thousands of honeybees near Portland, Oregon.

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