What Makes Us Successful?
Wendy Shima, M.Ed.
I was just watching a YouTube video the other day. The topic was a TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth, noted math teacher turned psychologist, who began studying the question of why some of us succeed and others struggle. Her answer? Grit. Through extensive research, she found that those people who developed grit in their younger years were more likely to succeed….at anything. It wasn’t grades, or talent, or money, or popularity. Just grit. Duckworth expounded upon the idea of grit, defining it as the ability to persevere when the going gets tough. When you combine this with a passion for what you are doing, you have ‘grit’, or, the ability to succeed.
As a classroom teacher for over 30 years, I wholeheartedly agree with this analysis. I have seen other research that points to a similar conclusion: It is the skills and habits we develop in our early (toddler and preschool) years that make all the difference. Of course, the next question we all have is, “How do I help my child learn grit?” Duckworth doesn’t have a clear answer, but let’s take a look at these tools of passion and perseverance.
One of the things I find so amazing about children is that they come into the world with a passion for it. They have a strong desire to learn about it, to touch it, to taste it, and to fully experience it. Everything is interesting and new. When we have a young person in our lives, it allows us, too, to let go a bit and play in the sand and make mudpies, to pretend that we are superheroes saving the day, or just to stop and enjoy the present moment. The question, therefore, is not one of creating passion, but of supporting this naturally occurring passion.
Having a passion for something means finding it enjoyable enough to act. During the toddler and preschool years, adults can sometimes get in the way of a child’s activity by inadvertently creating restrictions: restricting movement by leaving the child in a playpen for extended periods, restricting touch by having many items in the house that are off-limits or restricting the child’s ability to participate in decision-making due to time constraints. Instead, we want to encourage activity and specifically, activity that promotes a sense of participation in the life of the family. At 2 years of age, a young child wants nothing more than to do what we are doing, whether it is washing the dishes or the car, watering the plants, vacuuming, deciding on dinner or picking out clothes for the next day. Allowing our children to participate in these small daily tasks invites them to express an interest, and then encourages that interest through their experience of the task. This interest-experience sequence needs to be repeated many times over: being allowed to choose an apple at the grocery store, making a choice between two shirts to wear tomorrow, being allowed to push the vacuum (with a little help!). These are all highly empowering activities!
Now, if a child has developed a passion for things, but can’t persevere when challenges arise, the passion will fade. This is where we, as parents and teachers, can help. Unlike passion, perseverance isn’t something we are born with, but something we need to learn and develop. So many times in the classroom, I have watched parents who kindly (or because we are in a hurry) do everything for their children - carry them around when they are able to walk, pack their lunch for them, take off their boots, etc. If our goal is to help our children to learn perseverance, these basic tasks are keys to help children participate. The first step is allowing them to participate. The second is allowing them to fail, and then supporting them to try again (struggle) until they succeed. It’s very important that we help them try again, and again, until they reach success. Without success, the child will have no reason to develop perseverance.
I remember my youngest daughter at 21/2 years of age. She loved to set the table, but never wanted to bring her dish to the dishwasher at the end of the meal. Now, I could have done it for her in a second. However, I knew that if I let her off the hook and allowed her to avoid the struggle, we would never develop that grit and, instead, I would be strengthening a very different, unwanted tool called, “If I avoid it long enough, someone else will do it for me”. So, I took a deep breath and chose lunch and dinner (when we weren’t rushed) as the two meals we were going to work on. I had already made it as easy as possible - her table was a child-sized table in the kitchen about 4 feet from the dishwasher.
After that first meal, the rest of the family cleared their dishes and went into the living room to read together. My youngest followed us in there, her dish still on the table. One plate. 4 feet away. Not really asking a lot. To my daughter, however, who had simply decided she wasn’t going to do it, it was a huge deal. Every time she came into the living room, I calmly returned her to the kitchen and pointed to her plate. I knew that once I started, I was going to need to see it all the way through, so that she could feel the pattern of hard work followed by success. I figured about 20 minutes. I was prepared. I even controlled my laughter each time she came into the living room, armed with a new explanation as to why her plate was not in the dishwasher. 20 minutes became half an hour, which then turned into an hour. At this point, I was ready for a nap! I have worked with a lot of children in my life and a more determined child I have not known. After an hour and a half, she finally picked up the plate, carried it to the dishwasher and set it in with a big grin. Then she sat on the door of the dishwasher and proceeded to organize the silverware by type. When she was finished (success!), we snuggled up for some reading. She was excited about her recent acquisition of new skills and I was wiped out. Do you ever notice that working on perseverance with your children often creates a much stronger and hard-earned perseverance in ourselves? Whew!
Creating a sense of passion and perseverance is a fairly straightforward process. However, it does require a concerted effort on our part to take time to allow children to participate in our lives and to allow them to struggle. For the children, the most important part of the struggle is to see themselves succeed. After my daughter got that dish in the dishwasher, it became a pleasure for her and from then on, she delighted in all things dishwasher. It also made her other challenges (putting away clothes, packing parts of her lunch, etc.) much easier. That day, all of us gained just a little more ‘grit’!
To stimulate life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the first duty of the educator. Maria Montessori
Hi! I'm Wendy Shima, the Coordinator and an instructor for the Early Childhood Education Program at Technical College of the Rockies in Delta, Colorado. I started this site to help navigate the process for becoming an Early Childhood Professional. I hope you find it helpful!