Back To School: Why Grit is More Important Than Good Grades

Letting your kids struggle academically may the best way to help them succeed

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The back-to-school season is upon us, and once again, parents across the country have loaded their kids’ backpacks up with snack packs and school supplies. It’s a good moment to reflect on what else we should be giving our kids as they head off to school.

American parents are feeling particularly anxious about that question this year. The educational process feels more than ever like a race, one that starts in pre-preschool and doesn’t end until your child is admitted to the perfect college. There is a lot of advice out there on how best to help our kids thrive, but after surveying the research, I believe that most parents are more worried than they need to be about their children’s grades, test scores and IQ. And what we don’t think about enough is how to help our children build their character — how to help them develop skills like perseverance, grit, optimism, conscientiousness, and self-control, which together arguably do more to determine success than S.A.T. scores or I.Q.

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In fact, there’s growing evidence that our anxiety about our children’s school performance may actually be holding them back from learning some of these valuable skills. If you’re concerned solely with a child’s G.P.A., then you will likely choose to minimize the challenges that child faces in school. With real challenge comes the risk of real failure. And in an ultra-competitive academic environment, the idea of failure — even a small, temporary failure — can be very scary, to students and parents alike.

But experiencing failure and adversity, researchers have found, is a critical part of building character. Recent research by a team of psychologists led by Mark Seery of the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, found that adults who had experienced little or no adversity growing up were actually less happy and confident than those who had experienced a few significant setbacks in childhood. Overcoming those obstacles, the researchers hypothesized, “could teach effective coping skills, help engage social support networks, create a sense of mastery over past adversity, [and] foster beliefs in the ability to cope successfully in the future.”

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By contrast, when we protect our children from every possible adversity — when we call their teachers to get an extension on a paper; when we intervene in the sandbox to make sure everyone is sharing their toys; when we urge them to choose only those subjects they’re good at  — we are denying them those same character-building experiences. As the psychologists Madeline Levine and Dan Kindlon have written, that can lead to difficulties in adolescence and young adulthood, when overprotected young people finally confront real problems on their own and don’t know how to overcome them.

In the classroom and outside of it, American parents need to encourage children to take chances, to challenge themselves, to risk failure. Paradoxically enough, giving our kids room to fail may be one of the best ways we can help them succeed.

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23 comments
NataliaRose
NataliaRose

 This is completely false. As a newly admitted freshman into a University, I can guarantee you that grades and test scores matter more than "grit" and character. Most schools nowadays won't even look at your application unless you meet the minimum test score requirements which are only getting higher with the impaction of schools. SATs, advanced classes (AP and honors), even ACT scores. Those are what will get you admitted, not having good character.

Talendria
Talendria

I think what the author is saying in broader philosophical terms is that the journey is more important than the destination.  If your only concern is getting admitted to your dream university, then having your parents pave the way for you is definitely the most expeditious means to that end.  But if your goal is to have a satisfying life and experience spiritual growth, struggle is an essential part of that process.

I don't think it's a coincidence that some of our most respected scientists, authors, and entrepreneurs did very poorly in school.  Their travails undoubtedly made them stronger and more determined to succeed.

Ryan White
Ryan White

I thought that was part of the point. You could dodge hard classes or hard teachers and have a good GPA without the challenge.

The author seems to be ignoring the fact that you can boost your "stats" (ACT/SAT/GPA) by working harder at it, requiring the perseverance and self-control he seems to think must come from somewhere else. I think SAT is actually a good measure because it's a standardized challenge whereas you can find ways to fake a good GPA by dodging challenges, so I don't quite understand his point of view.

NataliaRose
NataliaRose

This is completely ridiculous. As a current freshman in University, my test scores and advanced classes have helped me far more than character. So a person is a moral person who has overcome challenges and adversity. If they are uneducated with a low GPA, they will not get into college.

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Mithileshwar Thakur
Mithileshwar Thakur

It is a proven fact that in this competitive age of cut-throat competition parents are

more concerned about the grades and CGPA of their children than anything else. Everyone is more than willing to join the rat race. The prospect of a cushy job with fat

salary for the ward often dominates their agenda with focus on other aspects of

character-building taking a back seat. 

Parenting has now increasingly become an extremely demanding task and

setting right priorities for the child an even more complex issue.

There is need to acknowledge that 24x7 obsession

with academic achievement at times creates repulsive impulses among kids and

kid-glove treatment deprives them of the opportunity to face the world on their

own. I completely take the point made by Paul Tough that we must allow children

to swim across rough waters on their own and risk failures. Development of

qualities of perseverance, grit and never-say-die spirit are no less important.

After all, excellent grades do not necessarily translate into success stories always

                           

                                                         Mithileshwar Thakur

Maureen Owen
Maureen Owen

If American parents are so worried about their kids' educations, why is it every American I meet, even from prestigious schools, is so stupid?

Raggedhand
Raggedhand

Maybe they're talking over your head.  When you think you're the only smart person in the room, often it's the reverse.

Rumionemore
Rumionemore

Recently two neuroscientists of different backgrounds have made reference to the importance of discipline in a person's success - vs. intelligence. Both are important, but a person with average intelligence can become a champion in the world if he or she can focus and have will power. The latter is a word our society does not like to hear. Our current financial mess shows this.

YzFlorida
YzFlorida

I am disappointed to see the author put good character development and pursuing good academic performance as two mutually exclusive education objectives. Good characters, such as hard working, perseverance, and strong will power help students to achieve good academic performance. Demanding students to meet, not to avoid academic challenges are important character building tasks. Many Asian families take this approach. As a result, their students succeed in American schools.

Riley Lees
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Bruce Buccio
Bruce Buccio

Challenge and adversity will build character and that will come. The best advice our kids is love and support in everything they do be it academia, sports, etc.... looking back on my four kids ( who are now in or past college) is good homework habits/skills at home and a comfortable social climate. The rest will take care of itself.

cuStudentloans
cuStudentloans

Want to let your child experience a challenge?  Let them take ownership of their college education by taking ownership of the bill pay process.  They will understand what loans are when they take the time to read through the materials themselves.

There are many ways that students can take responsibilities away from parents and start handling it solo.  However, it's a good idea for parents to monitor progress, less they go way off in direction.

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Ashley Thompson

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