Remember that day last summer when I took the girls to the pool and I decided to get out of the middle of the parenting road (because heck it’s dangerous standing there!)?
Here’s the scene: I’ve got two 9 year old girls, my daughter Sonja and her friend Gracie. These girls are avid swimmers, eager to get to the pool to play. I fantasize that our trip will include my making serious headway with my summer reading (even tho it’s September), while they amuse themselves.
As it is with parenting, my expectation of time for myself proves a pipe dream as they repeatedly ask me to watch their antics in the water.
I decide to go all in and be present with the girls. I see them with their faces all lit up and full of life because they can tell — I’m all in.
What does being present with them look like?
Their request for attention begins simply.
For the first ten minutes its,
“Mom, tell us who has the biggest splash when we jump in!”
This is easy.
For the next five minutes,
“Mom, now who’s got the smallest splash?”
Next the requests get more complicated.
“We’re going to each make up a dance and you tell us which one is better. We won’t care which one you choose… PLEEEEEEEEASE.”
What kind of attention do I give the girls?
These are the two choices I imagine:
The fluffernutter with jelly beans sandwich! Equalize the good stuff – like an overdose on sweets. I’ll go back and forth stating whose performance is best.
Wonderful, beautiful. Oh such great moves. I’ll continue with loads of oooohing and Ahhhing. Wow’s coming flying out of my mouth and a resounding you girls are amazing!
Hyperboles abound aimed at both girls, alternating names. They’ll each feel the rush of being the BEST!
I take a moment to process this request and then say to the girls,
No, that kind of judging is what we call ‘subjective’ — which means just one person’s opinion — and that’s going to be too hard for me.
“Please mom, I promise we won’t care which one you pick.”
As a result, the girls decide to create individual dances and ask me to watch them after a few moments of practice.
I support them by being present.
In this scenario I’ve decided to simply pay attention to them. I have the presence of mind to respond genuinely to their beautiful 9 year old bodies moving with the raw vitality.
I make eye contact.
My response doesn’t sound or even look like much. I feel mellow… down right relaxed even and heck I’m enjoying myself 🙂
I notice that when my daughter pops out of the water, during a particular dance move, her eyes are fixedon my eyes – am I looking at her?
She smiles and I smile back. A simple genuine and powerful encouragement connection.
The girls are laughing and having a ball.
They’re being graceful and silly at the same time; authentically creative.
I love being their audience and simply encourage them by noticing, laughing, hooting, oooohing.
My comments sound like,
“Looks like you’re learning moves from each other.”
“Did that hurt?”
I bite my tongue to keep from spouting judgments (albeit positive) and opinions.
After years of teaching parenting classes, I still find biting my tongue to be one of my greatest parenting tools :).
While the automatic over the top enthusiastic responses feel like the way to be a supportive parent, they aren’t.
Carol Dweek’s work on praise vs. effort vs. intelligence is explained in this short video.
Simply paying attention is down right relaxing for me and I can see it’s freeing for the girls as I watch them become more goofy, beautiful and collaborative with every new dance.
They’re not dancing to please me, but to please themselves.
During the next hour I have a singular, delightful focus. Even now, a year later, it’s a rich memory for me. I can still see the girls’ lit faces, their determination, their playfulness.
Deciding to pay attention without praising is powerful and allows your child to be playful— to be themselves.
Look for opportunities to be with your children — to pay attention to them without fanfare but with your full, genuine awareness. See what you notice in yourself and your kids. And then come back and share your experiences in the comments.
It’s summer and my daughter and her friend want to go to the pool to play. I fantasize that the girls will occupy each other and I’ll be able to read or at the very least get some knitting done.
Turns out, they want me to join in their amusement. They plead, watch us, watch us as they scheme to perform synchronized, dramatic water jumps and dances.
Quickly it’s apparent that I’ve got three options in how to respond to their pleas:
Go old school and brush them off saying “No girls, I’m reading.”
Middle of the road it – “Okay girls – show me what you’ve got” but meanwhile I knit or attempt to read in between requests.
Go all in with the kids – book closed on the ground, knitting tucked away in its bag – I sit up actually looking directly at them.
The thought of going Old School on them is familiar and slightly guilt inducing. I grew up with parents and children pretty much doing their own thing, all the time. Sometimes we’d watch football, 6o Minutes or Murder She Wrote on TV together on Sunday evenings (I loved this) but my brother, sister, and I wouldn’t dare to ask directly for attention from grown ups.
It just wasn’t part of the program 40+ years ago. It wasn’t the way our family operated.
There is a time and a place for old school. It’s not only okay, but it’s downright healthy for children to have time when they’re not getting direct attention from an adult.
I want to be reading, but my knee jerk parenting shoulding voice says you should be paying attention to the kids Lisa… at all times humanly possible. (Wonder if this is related to the old school way I grew up??? 🙂 )
Then, another part of me says Lisa you’re at the pool, for 3@!$ sake, read your book!
These competing voices are crazy making — nothing is done well with divided attention.
By not making a decision and by default, choosing the middle of the road, you literally split your attention and feel like you’re in No Man’s Land. There’s no upside for yourself or your kid. I see this as the unconscious back drop for many parents these days, particularly with the constant distraction created by our smartphones.
Going All In
Finally, the somewhat novel thought of going all in actually feels like a relief to me when it flashes across my mind as an option.
The me time to do’s (like writing, reading and even knitting) fall away and I feel light, even floaty.
[tweetthis display_mode=”box”]News flash! I can let go and simply focus my full attention in one place.[/tweetthis]
The girls are asking for me and I decide to let go of the fantasy of me time and watch them like they are qualifying for the Olympics: with my entire being.
As I do this, my body unwinds into the moment and I feel a tremendous, relaxing sigh throughout my entire being. I only have one task at hand and I can do this and actually do it well.
(I use Headspace to support my on-going meditation practice – I recommend it!)
Having two, much older sons, I know the days of “watch me, mom!” will soon end.
During the next hour I had a singular, beautiful focus. Even now, a year later, it’s a rich memory for me. I can still see the girls’ lit faces, their determination, their playfulness.
Other days I’ve chosen to say “no” and that’s positive, too. It’s healthy for children to see you pursue your interests and to know that they can occupy themselves without your attention.
It’s not an either/or dilemma. We have time in our lives for both.
How often do you find yourself in the middle of the road with your parenting?
The next time you’re in this situation, take a moment to consider where you really want to be and BE THERE instead of staying in the middle.
Mother’s Day is a sweet time to recognize all the good.
I feel so lucky because I’ll be able to celebrate this year with my own dear mother. She’s a quirky, creative, generous woman and an absolute treasure to me.
At the same time, life is not all happiness and joy right now for me as a mother.
One of my children is suffering. And as you know, when your child isn’t well, it can feel impossible to let that pain go.
So if your heart also aches because of an issue with your child, I want to remind you (and myself): we’re not alone.
My Mother’s Day message this year is simple: Take care of yourself.
Make a mindful choice to do the following:
Expand your tunnel vision*
*Devote time and energy to other relationships in your life. When you’re in a crisis with one child you can understandably suffer from tunnel vision. Consciously decide to continue to focus on your other children, spouse, and friends (who are supportive). This is important for your own health and ability to gain perspective AND for maintaining those important connections with people who love you and in the case of your other children, need your continued connection.
It’s easy to forget these basics and fall into destructive patterns when we’re filled with worry.
When you make self-care a central part of your life, you’ll find that the kindness you show yourself infuses your own life, and the life of your family with positivity. It provides a model for your child and makes the path to reach your goals and those of your family so much smoother. (source: 8 Self-Care Tips for Parents Who Have No Time for Self Care.)
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.
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.
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 aMacArthur ‘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.
Shortly after Eric finished up my 7- week parenting series, he sent me this story which beautifully illustrates the power of asking for a hug.
Last week on my way home from work, my wife Stephanie sent me a text that our daughter Grace (5) was being a handful, was in a horrible mood and that she had had it with her.
When I got home, I walked into the house and went straight to Grace and asked her for a hug. At first she turned her back and crossed her arms, and said no.
I then decided to ask her one more time and after a 5-second pause, she turned and gave me a big hug.
Steph said it was like someone flipped a switch on Grace. She went from being in the worst mood to acting as if she was having the best day ever.
It’s amazing to see the kind of impact and dynamics that something as simple as asking for a hug can have on a 5 year old.
Honestly, before taking your class, I probably would have come home and punished Grace for misbehaving and the entire afternoon would have been ruined for the whole family.
Asking for a hug sounds almost too easy, right? Too simple to be true?
However, while it’s simple… there’s a subtle tweak that’s key to the effectiveness of this parenting strategy.
“I could use a hug” vs. “Can I give YOU a hug?”
The first taps into your child’s deep need for significance and belonging. When you ask for a hug fromyour child, you acknowledge that they make a difference to you and in fact have a positive influence on your life.
In the later, you are reinforcing what your child hears and perhaps feels frequently: That children need help from grownups to feel better.
The parenting tool of asking for a hug (for YOU) is simple, easy, and effective if done from the perspective of genuine connection, genuine desire for your child to assist you! (Plus, who doesn’t love hugs? I love it!)
Try it out.
Ask a friend to be your parent and say these two phrases to you:
Could you give me a hug?
You look like you could use a hug.
Do you notice a difference in how you feel after each?
This week look for an opportunity to ask your child for a hug.
I’d love to hear how it goes in the comments below!