It was the end of our summer time together.
My sister and I had a van FULL of kids, hers, mine and our brothers’, parked in my grandmother’s driveway.
Over the years it had gotten progressively harder for me to say goodbye to my grandmother. Each year I wondered if this would be the last time I’d see her.
This year she was 99, standing in front of her cottage, coming out to watch our precious cargo get settled into the rented van. She stood there — old but not fragile — soft, but also solid as a tree. The most beautiful woman in the world.
I approached her, her arms wide open — mine open to meet her — oh Granny, thank you for everything… this is goodbye until next summer. Tears welling in our eyes. A hug that I never wanted to end.
But then the clammering in the car called to me, reminding me of the long journey ahead from Maine to the ferry in New London Connecticut to finally Long Island.
We released each other, I scrambled into the driver’s seat, feeling relief in the obvious distraction of all these kids needing me. The clear responsibility in front of me served to keep me moving.
Backing out of her short driveway, I rolled down the windows and we all cheered Bye Granny. She raised her arm in a fist and shouted, “COURAGE!”
Pulling away, I was stunned, my breath hard to catch… How did she always know exactly what to say? … Courage!?
That one word said it all in that moment. On one level my sister and I would need obvious courage to face the ten hour drive ahead with the car full of excited and soon-to-be-exhausted kids.
But Granny also knew that I’d need courage to leave her. And that she’d need courage to say goodbye to this car teaming with life, love and respect for her.
That realization pierced my heart and took my breath away.
She might also have meant the courage she mustered everyday being an ancient person in a world that valued the shiny and new. The courage to face the day without all of her many dear friends who’d died over the last 10 years. The courage to face each day with deep curiosity, interest in and love for her family and the broader community whom admired and loved her.
I haven’t spent much of my life considering courage in personal terms. I reserve it as a label for those serving in war, putting out fires, or responding to other of life’s emergencies.
But then there’s my sage Grandmother declaring what is also real: the everyday ways we face life with courage or that life requires courage of us.
I’ll never forget when my first son was born. Holding the warmth and deliciousness of him in my arms only hours after he arrived, I was in awe.
What had I gotten myself into? Looking down at him, I knew that my life would never be the same. And not in the over-used cliche way, but in the most substantial way. The way most parents — if they’re lucky — come to understand their new responsibilities.
My life was no longer about me. I now had the impossible task of keeping another human safe at every turn. How could I bear the pain of him being hurt, physically or otherwise? He was the most precious person and it would be my job to keep him safe. I knew I’d jump in front of a bus, no second thoughts, to protect this new being in my arms.
At the time, I didn’t connect this with courage. But now, jumping in front of a bus sounds like that huge kind of courage reserved for heros.
Of course, we can’t sustain the level of awareness I had that day in the hospital, but it’s still there — just under the surface — fear mixed with courage. And it’s what gets us through everyday of our parenting journey.
“Choosing courage does not mean that we’re unafraid, it means that we are brave enough to love despite the fear and uncertainty.” Brene Brown
What if we claimed this courage, not in a braggadocious way, but rather as a deep knowing that life’s most meaningful choices take courage?
I’m curious if and how this would change my feeling of agency, of possibility for myself as a parent.
Rather than just rolling out of the driveway, pushing down the fragility that is life, we instead back up and hear “courage” for what’s at hand. We listen to a child’s fear and loneliness. We stay present with a friend as they describe their teenage son spinning out of control. We visit with a drug addicted mom in the hospital as she holds her newborn. Or we accompany a friend to her chemo appointment.
I’m grateful, so grateful that my grandmother declared “courage” that day even though the naming of it hurt.
Courage is our action amidst a poignant awareness of the fragility of life.
by Victoria Thorp
In recent weeks, a new book called “Grit,” by Dr. Angela Duckworth has made quite a splash, with coverage in news outlets from CBS News to NPR to the New York Times (even David Brooks loved it).
Maybe you’ve read these stories or perhaps bought a copy of the book yourself. Or maybe, because it’s spring and you can barely manage the onslaught of graduations, science fair projects and final exams, you’ve been in a media blackout. Either way, I have good news: this post will explain what ‘grit’ means and why it matters to you as a parent.
Angela and I in San Francisco, May 2016
Full disclosure: Dr. Duckworth is a friend and former colleague of mine, so I’m not new to the topic of grit, nor am I fully objective about Angela. But here’s the thing about Angela: besides winning a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant and working as psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, she’s also the mom of two middle school girls.
And I know from a recent conversation with Angela that she’s just as humbled by the challenges of parenting as we are, despite a best-selling book and her professional success.
Here’s my attempt to boil down her brilliant book into one page…
What does ‘grit’ mean?
Dr. Duckworth (hereafter to be described as Angela) defines ‘grit’ as a combination of passion, effort, and persistence applied toward a goal over a prolonged period of time.
Why does grit matter?
According to Angela’s extensive research, grit appears to be a strong predictor of life-long success and happiness — perhaps more so than innate talent or IQ. “Our potential is one thing,” she writes. “What we do with it is quite another.”
As a parent, I appreciate this definition because it breaks down the ‘talent myth’ that seems to dominate our popular understanding of why people are able to accomplish their goals. Whether it’s looking at athletes, artists, or even entrepreneurs, stories of victories and accomplishments are usually told as if these winners were born with a particular gift that made their dominance inevitable .
What’s different about grit?
Angela’s explanation of grit provides another narrative for understanding these stories, too. One that examines the persistence that these champions applied towards their goals, their ability to not give up even in the face of failure, and the specific, difficult and prolonged practice they applied to the craft/sport/skill they were trying to improve.
Here in the Bay Area, Steph Curry is the most famous example of an athlete who wasn’t considered to have much potential as a youngster, but who’s risen to the top of the game through his determination, endless practice, and dedication.
So how can we find our passion (or help our kids find theirs)?
Never discount the power of the chart to motivate kids to reach a goal- especially charts they make themselves (note that goal has yet to be met but working on it!)
At least where I live (Palo Alto, California, U.S.A.), passion is the newest element that kids are supposed to add to their dazzling college resumes. It’s not enough to have great grades and do varsity sports, now teens are supposed to also have a “passion,” whether it’s global warming or raising foster dogs.
That’s why I loved the part of Angela’s book where she explains in detail what it means to have a passion and explores exactly how people stumble upon the “thing” that they end up pursuing with so much grit.
Angela has some experience with trying to find a passion because she spent time as a neurology grad student, management consultant, high school teacher, and tech COO before realizing that her true path lay in the study of psychology (she entered the PhD program at Penn when she was pregnant with her first daughter).
Why it’s hard to find a passion
Some people may realize like a bolt of lightening that they want to study sharks or cure childhood obesity, but most of us won’t have the luxury of this sort of epiphany.
We’re more likely to figure out what we love through multiple exposures and prolonged engagement with something that we might ‘sort of’ like or be ‘kind of’ interested in.
In fact, it may take longer than you’d imagine before you realize what it is that you must pursue.
The reason it takes so long is because of how our brains work.
When people are bored, they know right away. Researchers can ask people if they’re bored when doing a task and they will be very clear if the answer is yes.
It’s much harder to ascertain if a person is truly interested in a task.
When researchers ask people, “Are you interested in what you’re doing?” the answer is often, “Not really.” But these same people will manifest behavior that looks a lot like interest — continuing to do the task, not wanting to break away from it, etc.
It takes lots of exposure to something for kids to develop an interest in it…
For parents, this means that we have to keep exposing our kids — over and over again — to activities, ideas, and pursuits that they may not express a ton of interest in.
Sounds hard, right? Likely it’s a process we’re all familiar with at the dinner table. You’re tempted to never make broccoli again after your kids reject it a few times. But you know their tastes keep changing and experts recommend that you bring back foods that were previously rejected or your kids will eat nothing but white rice for the rest of their lives.
So when it comes to interests and passions, it’s most beneficial to our kids if we give them multiple exposures to a variety of different pursuits … that we not have a fixed mindset about what may interest them as they grow and change.
So if kids try lots of things and quit, what then?
This photo links to Angela’s TED Talk
Angela has a rule in her house — never quit on a rainy day. In other words, never quit because of having to play in bad weather or striking out, or experiencing some other adverse situation.
Instead, encourage your kids to get through the season and to not quit until there’s a natural stopping place (could be the last session you paid for, etc.)
What if kids have a passion for something that you find less than inspiring?
From Minecraft to marijuana legalization, kids can get fixated on pursuing interests that feel less than ideal. So what to do?
That’s a tough one and Angela has not addressed it directly. But she does have another rule in her house I thought was a good: everyone has to do one ‘hard thing.’
On CBS news she said, choosing the ‘hard thing’ is not an open-ended question — it’s multiple choice.
While her teen girls might be passionate about Instagram, Angela is clear that they can’t choose that as their ‘hard thing.’ Instead, it has to be a sport or musical instrument.
Sports or musical instruments may not be right for your family, but the idea is to encourage your kids to pick something they have enough interest in to pursue and get them to stick with it long enough to make progress.
Can grit be taught or is it just a trait you’re born with?
There’s a lot of debate about this question. Angela gives some ideas for how to ‘grow grit’ but they are more anecdotal, perhaps because the research here is a bit less clear.
I have two girls and one is definitely more naturally gritty in the way Angela defines it. She sets goals and tends to stick to them, and loves to practice and get better — she’s inspired to improve (flute and soccer are her main areas of focus).
My other daughter has lots of big ideas, but often abandons her plans before they’re fully realized, and isn’t particularly driven to practice. So my tiny data set would lead me to the conclusion that there is some innate element to grit.
While you can’t teach your kids to have innate drive, by setting clear expectations around commitment and practice, you increase the likelihood that they’ll experience the relationship between effort, time and progress.
My daughter worked for a year to over come her fear of running hurtles.
My less gritty daughter’s found a track program that she loves. She’s kept running for several years. She’s motivated to train with her team; and while she doesn’t do much practice on her own, she’s made noticeable improvement. The findings in Grit support the idea that sustained practice is best done with a coach — and that it’s tough to independently figure out where and how to improve.
I have no idea if my girls will pursue these interests for their whole lives, but I’m trying to encourage them to keep going long enough to feel competent, as I do believe competence builds confidence. And you can’t get to competence without putting in the time.
One big thing that ‘gritty’ people have: purpose
And finally, one of the most compelling parts of Angela’s exploration of grit is the connection she makes to purpose.
From her many conversations with gritty people, she discovered that beyond perseverance, persistence, and prolonged practice, they all shared a belief that what they do is important, valuable or makes a difference in the world in some way.
This was true for musicians, athletes, business people, and even one sanitation worker she interviewed. And she has some great tips for trying to find purpose. (Read the book!)
So now you’re wondering…how gritty are you?
You can take the ‘grit scale’ and find out how you rank on Angela’s assessment.
I’m in the mid range in terms of grit — I bounce around from interest to interest and have never had a laser focus on one thing. It’s a good personality for a writer! But reading Angela’s book gave me new inspiration to look hard at the things I dabble in and try and commit more deeply so I can continue to grow and learn. Even an old dog can get gritty…or so I’d like to believe!
Are you getting gritty with your kids? Or skeptical that grit is yet another parenting fad? Post a comment and let us know!
Victoria is the founder of Palo Alto Pulse, a website that shines a light on the people and ideas that make Palo Alto such a cool place to live. She is also a senior contributing writer for the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund in San Francisco, where she supports the work of KIPP charter schools and other innovative educational organizations. Victoria lives in Palo Alto with her two teenage daughters, her husband and, the grittiest member of her family, her dog Abby.
Being on autopilot has gotten a bad rap. Mindless, unconscious, not thinking, a cognitive state in which you act without self-awareness.
Here’s why, as a parent, I love it. (Maybe you’ll relate, too?)
Autopilot can help you live with a focus on what really matters to you — without all the effort.
When you get into parent mode and forget to do the things you love (and even the things you don’t but simply need to do — like go to the doctor!), autopilot comes in handy. If you’re one of those who goes weeks or even months before you remember to do something for yourself, or who’s just plain forgotten what it is you love (besides your kids) you need more autopilot.
Autopilot – a navigational device that automatically keeps ships or planes or spacecraft on a steady course.
Think of yourself as a whole person (the entire spacecraft if you will!) – parent, spouse, leader, singer, creator, lover, grower, cooker, collaborator, teacher, hugger….
As a whole person, you have many different courses that need to be followed on a daily basis — not the least of which are courses that help you take care of you.
Here’s how I’ve consciously used autopilot to experience more joy in my life… on a consistent basis.
When my first son was born, none of my friends had children. I was the first. In some ways it was wonderful because initially, friends offered to sit for him while my husband and I grabbed a bite to eat or took a walk. Our baby boy was a novelty who delighted and surprised.
However, after a few months, I noticed I wasn’t seeing friends. I was exhausted and it took too much energy to organize socializing. While I felt fried by the physical demands of parenting, I deeply missed my connection with my friends.
I decided to form what came to be known as “dinner group.” With 3 other couples that I knew from social work school, we’d gather every Thursday evening at one of our homes for a meal. We had a rule that host duties rotated and to keep it simple the host did all the work — no stepping in to help clean up, and it was okay if you to arrive late.
Dinner group endured for 15 years. Autopilot worked like magic. We attended each other’s weddings and births and even put together a cookbook of our favorite recipes. That deep, continuous connection that I craved was achieved without the daily nagging feeling, “I should invite friends over.”
I also love live theatre, but feel completely overwhelmed by the Pink Section (the San Francisco Chronicle’s arts section). I find it stressful to make future plans and, frankly, to commit. I weigh the cost of a show and wonder if it’s really worth it. And then I end up not doing anything.
However, a fews years back my husband surprised me with season tickets to the Berkeley Rep for my birthday. The gift of theater and not having to decide and follow through has been huge. I’ve renewed the tickets every year since… why? Autopilot.
Just yesterday I put dates for six shows in my calendar from September through June. I look forward to and plan around these dates. I invite a friend or my husband and we make an evening of it with dinner and lots of time to chat and connect.
It’s an absolute luxury. A treat. What makes it doubly delicious is that I don’t have to go to the effort of researching, weighing, purchasing and planning. Sure, some shows are better than others but the surprise and ease is a large part of the fun.
What do you love that you’re not doing because you’ve got kids and it feels like too much effort to set plans in motion? What doesn’t feel worth the hassle right now, but you know at the end of the year (or the end of your life!) you’ll feel a deep pang because you didn’t ________?
Your list might include going to the theatre, having dinner with friends on a regular basis, Monday dog walks with your BFF or keeping up with your Positive Discipline practice.
If it’s the latter, and you’ve already taken at least 12 hours of PD instruction, get yourself on autopilot by signing up for the on-going Roots series.
It’s once a month (September – May) — don’t torture yourself by having to consider it every month. Just sign up and be done with it. If you make it, great, if not, chalk it up to making an intention that you really care about.
Once you’ve got the Roots meeting on your calendar in ink you’ll be more likely to attend — the first step in making a change is bringing your mental focus to what you want to change.
I just learned that Frances McDormand is playing Lady Macbeth in a production in the upcoming season at the Berkeley Rep. Don’t ask me where my seats are, what they cost, or even what month I’m going. It’s on the calendar and I’m thrilled!
When I’m engaged in my life, doing things I love (outside of parenting), I’m lighter, happier and more consistently grounded and present with the kids and everything else in my life.
Ask yourself: What do I want more of? What am I craving that I just don’t make time for anymore? What will help me stay steady and on course with more joy?
Next, consider how you can put this activity on autopilot; and finally, set the wheels in motion by calling your BFF to see about that Monday morning walk (scheduled on auto repeat in your calendar).
Lastly, send me an email or share in the comments about your autopilot activity. I’d love more ideas for pressing autopilot.
Do you often feel CHALLENGED by your child? You’re not alone. If you’re like me, you’ve got a kid who will argue with or defy you at every turn. Can you say, “power struggle”?
Here’s the twist – I’ve grown to cherish this quality in my son, E. – he’s inspired me to teach Positive Discipline and grow in ways I never imagined.
In my last post I wrote about a time when I lost it with him.
Today, I want to introduce a powerful tool that will give you concrete, helpful responses to your child’s misbehavior based on… drum roll please – how YOU feel.
The end result? A child who’ll more likely cooperate, contribute, and act like a leader in the best sense.
Here’s my before-and-after story to illustrate how using this tool, and identifying my feelings, gave me the opportunity to have an AFTER to write home about!
I was cooking dinner one afternoon. My 12-year-old son was playing the piano in the other room. From the kitchen I could hear 8-year-old E.(enter our ‘hero’) join his brother at the piano and begin running his forearm up and down the keys, causing a cacophony.
My jaw clenched. I burst onto the scene and yelled at him, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! LEAVE YOUR BROTHER ALONE! GO UP TO YOUR ROOM RIGHT NOW!”
Not my most inspired parenting moment but one I think many parents can relate to.
Later, I asked myself these questions:
What did my son learn from this interaction? “Mom is crazy, Mom is mean,” etc.
Do we feel harmonious and connected? No. I’m angry. He’s likely feeling indignant, hurt or both.
Now’s my chance to use that tool I mentioned earlier.
Don’t let this chart intimidate you! I use it to give me an idea of how to respond based on HOW I FEEL when E. bangs on the piano. Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive, but observe how it WORKS….
In my noisy example I’m feeling CHALLENGED. Based on the chart (see second row – misguided power), my son believes “I count or belong only when I’m boss, in control, or proving no one can boss me.” This rings true to me… how about for you?
Here’s what happens when I use the suggestion in the final column.
Piano cacophony starts: I say calmly, “E., I could use your help here in the kitchen. What do you think about using this sharp knife to chop these carrots for the soup?”
His eyes light up, and before I know it, we‘re working together, happily making dinner.
Giving E. work and/or responsibility is often right on the money when I start to feel provoked by him. This requires me to pause and have the presence of mind to respond rather than having my knee-jerk reaction.
Don’t try to memorize the chart. It’s simply a tool for guiding new responses based on how YOU feel when your child misbehaves. Hang it on your fridge or bathroom mirror so you can refer to it easily.
Positive Discipline isn’t about doing everything just right for your kids.
It’s more about the power of thinking ahead and the awareness that my child’s misbehavior is an opportunity to teach him what I value most – in this example: patience, creativity, and that the work it takes to create a yummy meal can be fun.
Utilize the chart and one day, when the scene is set for that familiar conflict, you’ll respond (instead of react), and out of the blue, experience the wonder of your child’s generous cooperation.
P.S. Carefully place a sharp knife into your toolkit and… magic!
Do you have an on-going dynamic with your child where you could see using this tool? How?
What’s the difference for you when you respond rather than react to your child or for that matter, anything in your life?
Share your thoughts below! It’s encouraging to know we’re not alone in this parenting journey!