True Grit:  What We REALLY Should Teach Our Kids

By Shlomo Maital  



 The Joel Coen movie “True Grit” (2010), a remake of John Wayne’s 1969 version, features Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who helps a young girl (with ‘true grit’) named Mattie Ross bring to justice Tom Chaney, a crook who killed her father and fled to “Indian Country”.  Mattie’s determination, against all odds, wins the day, even though she is tossed into a rattlesnake pit (by the recoil of her rifle) and loses her arm as a result.

    An appropriately named writer named Paul Tough has written a book, titled How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which answers the question, what is the most important thing we should teach our kids?  To study hard, to be smart?   Yes, but —  Tough frames the character hypothesis:  non-cognitive skills like “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.”

In 40 years of teaching innovation and entrepreneurship, I’ve known a lot of startup pioneers.  By far the most important character trait the successful ones had, in my view, is persistence and grit.  True grit gets you to the finish line far more often than Einsteinian genius.  Many of the geniuses just give up, because they’re so used to easy success, they can’t grapple with hardship.  So I agree with Tough.

How do you teach true grit to your kids?  Mainly, by encouraging them to try difficult things, and not be afraid to fail.  Failing, trying again, failing and overcoming big challenges is by definition true grit. And it can be learned.  It’s really hard for parents to do this, because we all want the best for our kids and want to protect them from stress, frustration, unhappiness and failure.  But you have to let them try, fall, skin their knees, get up, try again..and succeed.  On their own.

One of Tough’s points has to do with the poor and the rich. The rich give their kids everything, often, so the kids are never really challenged.  When they do face difficulties, they’ve never practiced overcoming them.    The poor tend to miss out on the true grit drama, not because they lack challenges but because the odds are so stacked against them, they are discouraged from the outset.  For example: Today’s Haaretz newspaper reports that over 60 per cent of schools in outlying areas of Israel do not even teach chemistry and physics.  What chance then do you have, living in these poorer areas, to become an engineer, even if you have true grit?  Study physics on your own?  Pretty hard.   And why should not the Minister of Education resign immediately, in view of this disastrous statistic?

So, the way to really help your children is not so much by sending them to expensive schools, but rather, by encouraging them to test the limits of their potential, in art, music, study, in everything, and celebrate with them failure as well as success.  Parents who do everything to protect their children from the frustration of not succeeding are doing them a huge disservice.

Tough himself proves his point. He dropped out of college as a freshman, bicycled alone from Atlanta to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then became an intern at Harper’s Magazine and began a great career as a writer and editor.

I think the best way to teach your kids True Grit is to practice it yourself.  Nothing is more powerful, in teaching, than doing.