Developing Grit

  by Chris Horst

Our five-year-old son, Desmond, stopped running a few dozen yards into the start of a lap around the track. He recognized quickly he was not going to win. So, in the face of certain defeat, he resigned.

I sympathized with Desmond’s decision. Why struggle through a race you are going to lose?

Grit is a trendy term in parenting and education circles. Its presence in your child’s character is lauded as a game changer, an indicator of future success. And at the heart of grit is resilience—the ability to take risks, lose well, and try again. Grit compels your kid to finish a lap around the track, even if a win isn’t possible. Grit is when your child doesn’t cry when she doesn’t know how to do the evening’s homework. This is grit.

Here are four easy phrases that you can say that can help develop grit in your kids:

I made a mistake.

Normalize your mistakes. Go out of your way to show your kids when you misspell, trip, lose a game, or break a glass. Pull stories of your mistakes out of the woodwork. Talk about when you forgot your lines in the school play or peed your pants on a class field trip.

When your kids know their dad is a mistake-making machine who doesn’t give up, you’re building their foundation for developing grit.

It used to be hard, but now it is easy.

If you’ve spent time with kids, chances are you’ve heard this condescending phrase voiced to each other: “That’s not hard for me.”

Simply respond by saying, “[Walking, Reading, Swimming, Using the Potty] used to be hard for you, but now it’s easy because you worked on it.” This response affirms their effort in the process and reminds them that they weren’t born with that innate ability. And, it creates camaraderie and hope for the learner.

On the flipside, “not yet” is a powerful phrase for the child yelling, “I can’t do it,” as they struggle to win a family foot race or read a chapter in a book. Make it clear that someday it will be within reach given hard work and time.

What are we going to do if we lose? if we win?

This is the time to pull out your best John McEnroe impression. Get your kids laughing about the ways they might react when they lose. Then practice good losing. Congratulate the pretend winners. Practice good winning. It prepares them for the emotions they will undoubtedly feel.

This is going to feel tough.

Prep them. Help them know their frustration and hard work aren’t a sign they’re doing something wrong or dumb. When I know the next math problem on the homework sheet is going to be a doozy, I pull out the ultimate prepper: “This next problem is so hard, it would probably make some six-year-olds cry.” And, usually, my five-year-old puffs his chest out and gives it a go.


On the track last week, Desmond didn’t finish that lap around the track. We believe in and encourage grit—and use these phrases daily—but no parenting strategy is bulletproof. But for every setback, we get a glimpse of hope. Later that week, Desmond and I played a simple game of backyard soccer. At the start of the game, he said, “Daddy, even if I lose, I’m going to try my hardest and cheer you on for doing a good job.” Upon hearing those words, I puffed my chest out. The kid’s developing grit.


Are gritty nicknames a thing? Regardless, consider at-home indoor bowling as a potential grit-building activity.

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Photo by Laura Burkholder. Used by permission.