Extracurricular Grit

I auditioned for the Kansas City Youth Symphony in 9th grade because my junior high orchestra had nine kids in it and I wanted a more sophisticated musical experience.  Unfortunately, I wanted to be a really good cellist but I didn’t want to practice, and that music was HARD!  So, after a few months of being embarrassed that I was only playing half the notes in last chair, I decided to quit.  Except Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me.  As far as they were concerned, I had made a commitment and they expected me to finish the season. I was really mad, but they were actually doing me a favor because they were helping me “get gritty.”

According to University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth, to be gritty is “to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal, to invest…in challenging practice,” and participation in extracurricular activities is an excellent way to build grit in kids. In fact, following through with two or more years of the same extracurricular activity in high school predicted success after graduation more than even high SAT scores and grades! The type of activity doesn’t matter so much as the duration of the commitment, because it is in sticking with the activity that one learns persistence.  (Good thing Mom and Dad didn’t know about the two-year benefit—I only had to stick it out for one season!)

So, do our kids have to stick with every activity they try for two whole years?  Well…no.  Helping children discover what they are going to be persistent with is a process.  Duckworth encourages parents to let younger children pick different types of activities to try out, because that’s how they discover what might grow into something they’re passionate about.  And parents need to let kids enjoy that process of discovery.  They need encouragement and applause just for trying at those beginning levels, with limited “corrective feedback…so as not to bludgeon their budding interest.”  At the same time, kids need to understand that most activities start out hard and become easier and more enjoyable with practice, so they shouldn’t be allowed to give up as soon as they experience frustration.

Duckworth offers her family’s Hard Thing Rule as a guideline for other parents who want to grow gritty kids:
“1.  Everyone—including mom and dad—has to do a hard thing that requires… deliberate practice.
2. You can quit, but not until the season is over, the tuition payment is up, or some other “natural” stopping point has arrived.
3.  You can’t quit on a bad day.
4.  You get to pick your hard thing.
5.  By high school, you have to commit to your hard thing for 2 years.”

When both parents and kids are doing a Hard Thing, they can provide support for each other through the shared experience of frustration on tough days and success on others. Hard Thing becomes a Team Thing!  And “gritty” becomes who we are.

Eva Dwight is a parent, family and personal coach.  For more information, go to www.creativecoachingconversations.com.