Psychologist Angela Duckworth on the art of teaching perseverance to your kids

Angela Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and founder and CEO of the Character Lab, a nonprofit advancing the science and practice of character development in children.

She is also the author of the New York Times bestseller "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance," which talks about how the combination of passion and persistence is more important than talent when it comes to succeeding in life.

Angela's research and ideas have been groundbreaking in the areas of education and parenting, and in this episode, she and Liz talk about how we can instill our kids with grit, how she personally approaches this with her own daughters, and why even though she's a psychology expert she herself is far from a perfect parent.


Liz: Angela, welcome to the Motherly podcast.

Angela Duckworth: Thank you for having me, Liz. I'm excited to be here.

Liz: Okay so I'm always curious when I have our guests on if you can describe what your view of motherhood was before you became a mother yourself?

Angela: I think like many daughters I guess I'll say that my mom was my role model and you know the only mental picture I had which is to be infinitely generous and selfless. But also I have to say in that growing up I never really thought about what my mom wanted and her needs and her professional ambitions. And then when I became a mom it changed because I grew up in a very different generation. I did not grow up thinking that my entire responsibility in life was just to take care of my husband and kids. So I found myself I think when I became a mother a little bit more in conflict with having goals for being a mom and goals as a professional.

Liz: What did that feel like to go through what you describe as that conflict when you did have your children?

Angela: It was hard in a way that I didn't anticipate. I just think that's human nature. I have a 17 and 16-year-old now and they're girls. It's interesting that you know I now realize I'm their role model so they're watching me and I think the tension that I feel is something that I'm not afraid to share with them. I think they just know how hard it is and I guess I feel in a way that that's the responsible way to message that every day I try a new trick. I'm like, maybe if we get Blue Apron, maybe if I make all the dinners on Sunday and we eat them leftover style. I mean they can see the struggle. I think that's good. I don't think that what we need to show our daughters is perfection. I don't think perfection exists.

Liz: So you have been doing this incredible research over the last decade on this character quality called grit. So can you help our listeners understand what is grit and how do parents and mothers in particular play a role in developing it in their kids?

Angela: Grit is this combination of passion and perseverance over really long periods. So it's loving what you do and working really hard at it for a very long time. I find it to be a common denominator of high achievers, both women and men across fields from sports to business to technology and scholarship. I think it's kind of an indication of what it really takes to succeed in anything which is to say that all the easy problems have already been solved and so the hard ones are the ones that are worth solving and they take a really long time. There are so many things that we want our girls and our boys to grow up to be in life. Of course, the list probably starts with things that are not grit. It probably starts with kindness and honesty, integrity, compassion. The list is long and actually, I think the word character to me summarizes all of those things, not just grit, but everything that we want our kids to be so that they have good lives for themselves and others. Now if you ask me what can parents do to encourage character in general and grit in particular, I think the most important thing that parents can do is to model that things that you really hope in your heart your kids will grow up to be. I know it sounds kind of common sense. It is common sense but there are so many times when you know a parent says, "Oh you know I wish my kids would stop being on their phones at the dinner table." Then they watch you like on your phone all the time, distractedly checking your work email or your text messages. That's a failure of modeling. Or if you say to your kids, "You know I really want you to be open-minded about other ethnicities, sexual orientations" but they see you wince when you see somebody who is just living a very different lifestyle. Then you're also failing to model. So for grit and everything else, I think providing an example as best you can. I think I'm not suggesting you model perfection but if you want your kids to be gritty then share with them what you're really passionate about and don't be afraid to tell them about how hard it is for you and how you're continuing to struggle because that's what grit is.

Liz: Let's just take that struggle with screen time. I struggle with that right and my kids are constantly negotiating with me about having screen time or getting it taken away. So what you're suggesting is that when I do struggle with it that I can really initiate a conversation about that with my kids; that perhaps it's saying, "You know mommy finds it very addictive to have a cell phone and a lot of times I want to go keep checking it. Do you ever feel like that?" Because I'm not perfect and it is something I'm still not doing well. So is that an example of that digging into where modeling is imperfect and what are other examples in ways where we haven't totally nailed it but parents want to get it right and they want to teach good character traits to their kids, but they're not perfect themselves.

Angela: I think you've given a great example of modeling is something that you haven't mastered but you're still working on and maybe that is even a better example for kids who are also struggling. For me it's less my cell phone and probably my laptop you know just being on that constantly. In any case the thing that you might add to modeling is metacognition. So when.

Liz: What is that?

Angela: Well metacognition is understanding about your own feelings and thoughts. Sort of like if you could imagine that you're looking down on yourself almost in a way. Like you're observing yourself and noticing like, "Oh there I go. I think I lost my temper there." Or "There I go with this strong feeling of being on my phone." It's just an awareness about your own thoughts and feelings. And so I think that if kids have a conversation; Children if you don't use jargon, which you should never use with anyone at any age, they can understand things at a pretty sophisticated level. You know even when kids read the Frog and Toad stories which I loved myself as a kid and read to my own kids, they're very psychologically sophisticated. When Frog and Toad struggle not to eat another cookie in the cookie story, you know even kids at age two and three they nod and they kind of get that; they know what it's like to have that struggle. So I think having conversations with your kids about how you know cell phones are like cookies and they taste really good but you know you do get a tummy ache if you do it too much. I think that metacognition to me is really the seed of all learning and development. I mean what is it to grow up other than to become more and more aware of how you're thinking and feeling and behaving and you know hopefully aligning all those things with how you want to be.

Liz: It must be fascinating doing all of this sort of research and thinking about the philosophy and psychology of how this works and then getting a real case study in it as a parent. Can you tell me what that's like to be studying the psychology of child-rearing and education and also being a parent and having real emotions in the middle of that?

Angela: It's been sometimes funny and always humbling. So on the funny side you know I would learn a new delay of gratification task and I would rush home to just try it out on my kids. So it was sometimes funny but when I say always humbling you know as a psychologist who spends her entire day studying what the right thing to say is, how to encourage kids to be motivated and confident but not narcissistic, you would think that I came home and I opened the door that I would be like super mom, that I would actually have everything encyclopedically at my fingertips. What was so humbling was though I do believe in metacognition it's good to understand these things. It is really hard to do. I think parenting is the hardest thing I have ever done. I'm only half joking when I say that I'm like a seven out of ten parent. That's a generous inflation for me there. So you know we should maybe be humble and also self-compassionate because when I shared this humility with these kind of failures like, "Oh my God I can't believe I said that. How did I say that? That was so exactly the wrong thing to say." With other moms and my own mom it turns out we all have those stories so maybe there are no ten out of ten parents.

Liz: I'm laughing because I just got a mother's day gift and it was a coffee mug that said, "World's Best Mom" and I just was like no I'm not. Like I'm a good mom but like not the best mom. You know let's be honest here. So you have talked about how for you parenting is actually the hardest thing that you've ever done. I was thinking about that reading your book because you know when we talk about grit and the benefits of having grit in the way that it leads to successful careers for example, we talk about achievement and accolades and inventing something and being out in the world, but so much of parenting and motherhood, it feels like you're in the grind of it. You're showing up. You're doing the hard work but it feels like you never accomplish anything.

Angela: One could argue that motherhood requires more grit than anything else because it is such a stamina sport and the grind doesn't always feel like it's working. It's not like you make breakfast on Tuesday, have one good conversation with your kid and you're like, "Okay I'm great." Check off the parenting for the next ten years. It's just one thing after the other. I also think there's something about this long term nature. When I study Olympic athletes and three-star Michelin chefs, it's true they often have very clear goals but there is a sense in which the work is never done. You know their vision of what they're trying to accomplish is something they know they'll go to their grave still working on. You know if that's not the very definition of parenting I don't know what. I mean I don't think it's ever done. I don't think it's done when your kids are out of diapers. I don't think it's done when they finally graduate from high school and you have an empty nest. I don't think it's ever done. It's the nature of human nature.

Liz: I love that and I totally agree. I think mothers are the grittiest people and that you're never done being a mother right and that is the beauty of it. That's what can make it feel so overwhelming.

Angela: Right and you know maybe it's true that the things that we truly value the most are the ones that are hardest fought. In fact, there is psychological research showing that when we work for something we value it more. I guess that would make us value our roles as mothers infinitely because it does sometimes feel so infinitely hard.

Liz: Totally. Okay so when it comes to encouraging grit in our kids, a lot of our listeners have little children and they're teaching them basic things like how to put on their socks or how to climb up into the car seat and things that are just basic tasks of being human but you know really require teaching and patience. So what are those ways that women can encourage the growth of grit in their children when they're young?

Angela: I have two pieces of advice. Okay the first one is that you know part of grit is struggling and not giving up. How do you teach that to a very, very young child? Well you let them struggle and you don't solve their problems for them too early. So if you see your child struggling to put on their socks or I remember the day my daughter struggled to open a box of raisins. When she gave up and like walked away thinking that's too hard, I did worry about her long term grit. I was like, oh my gosh my daughter's been defeated by a box of Sunmaid raisins. But the important thing is that when you see your child struggle, let them struggle a little longer than maybe is comfortable for some of us. Obviously you have to use common sense but you know if they can't do a homework problem and they really, really can't do it, of course you want to find some support but like as much struggle as you think they can take and as much struggle as you can take, I think they need to learn to do that. You know Lebron James said recently that some parents who want the best for their kids and he wants the best from his kids. If you solve their problems guess what? They will not figure out how to solve their own problems if you make life a frictionless path. Then don't be surprised when they are not very resilient. So that's one piece of advice. I think when you're talking about interest, that's the other piece of advice I have because when I think of grit I don't think just of hard work. I think of people who are passionate about what they do. They love what they do. They're infinitely curious about what they do. Then when you say what does that look like when kids are three, what does it look like when they're five, it doesn't look like what you think. So if you have an adult who's obsessively interested in something. It's all they think about. You might think that when they were three they were also singularly occupied but really what that looks like when you're three is that you're sampling a lot of different things. In fact, paradoxically it looks like the opposite. I want parents to encourage their kids to try as many different things as possible so that they could eventually come to something that they become obsessed with in a voluntary way. But don't make the mistake I see so many parents make which is they see this adulthood obsession and they just back nab it and they're like, "Oh I guess I could make my kid play piano for five hours a day." Since that's what it looks like in adulthood. No, you should let your kids play different things. You should let them change their minds. You should let them change activities and try on lots of different roles. I think that sampling, which is what scientists call that early period, sampling is what happens before specialization.

Liz: So on that first point I'm with you. My son is struggling to get his socks on and we're about to be late to school. He's getting frustrated. I'm getting frustrated. In that moment what are the phrases that I can use that kind of come from that place of what some people call this growth mindset?

Angela: Well Carol Dweck at Stanford University has given the world a great gift which is the idea of a growth mindset and the idea that a growth mindset is important for grit and other aspects of character, I think has now been validated by science. What a growth mindset is, ,is a belief. It's the belief that your abilities can change. So it's not thinking that you can do everything. It's just believing that you can learn almost anything. And so a child who gets frustrated with putting on their socks, as long as they believe they will eventually learn to put on their socks, you know that's okay. So how do we give kids that confidence so they are learners? Very often way the popular media has taken this growth mindset idea and internalized it is like you should always praise effort. You should say, "Well I'm really glad you struggled to put on your socks." That's not bad. That's not terrible but what we find with the most effective parents and also teachers is that their language that they use with their kids is what's often called a process-oriented. In other words, when your kid's trying to put on their socks talk about the socks. It's like here, move it over here. I think if you tug on this side it might be better. If a teacher is working with a failing math student, instead of saying I really admire your effort you just focus on the math. It's like you know what? I think in this problem you divided by seven and do you see here? Why did you do that? In other words, an expert parent or teacher doesn't spend a lot of time making these general statements about character, effort, or grit. They might do a little bit of that right. Like judiciously when you see a kid really overcome the obstacle. You can say, "Hey that was really great. I love it." But you know 95% of the time it's focused on the actual thing the kid is doing. You're drawing their attention away from themselves and to the work right. So that's I think what is missing for so many children. They get sort of obsessed with their own. I'm not good at this. I'm stupid. But really should be focusing on the thing that you're trying to do. As a parent, if you can lead their attention to the thing that they're trying to do and make it all about that, I think you're on the road to a kid who is approaching learning in a productive way.

Liz: So what does it look like letting your kid try different things versus when do you let them give something up. I think we struggle with that in my household. Like I'll sign my son up for baseball but then he doesn't want to show up the next week. Trying to find that balance of letting them have some autonomy to try different things but also not wanting to give up on things we've committed to and paid for. How do you find that balance?

Angela: When I was raising my own kids I had the exact same challenge. I still have that challenge. So what do you do? What's the right parenting move there? I think the hard thing rule which is what my husband and I called our rule for how to deal with this has built into it both grit but also the preservation of interest that's intrinsic to the kid. Because you don't want to forces your kid to do things that they don't care about for very long because that kills passion. So here's the hard thing rule. I think kids should have to finish what they start. They can't quit in the middle. So if you signed up your kid for baseball and you look each other in the eye and say, "Okay baseball is eight weeks and mommy's putting the check in. The check's going in the mail. We're signing the form and making a commitment." It's more than the money. We made a commitment to the coach and to the team. You know baring disaster I think the kid should finish their commitment. Second part of the hard thing rule because there's three parts, is that you have to choose something which is truly hard. I mean I think that kids should learn work ethic and to find some pleasure in working hard and improving. There has to be something that requires a little bit of discipline and work. It could be ballet. It could be trumpet. It could be gymnastics. It could be a great many things. But it can't just be goofing off. The final thing is that nobody can pick your hard thing but you. I mean that for every age really. Kids should be able to choose what they do for their hard thing that they're going to commit to and stick with to its natural end, the end of your commitment. That preserves passion. I think that protects against tiger parenting. So that's the way we raised our kids and we recently added a fun thing rule to compliment the hard thing rule because the thing is we did raise these two kids and my younger daughter was practicing her viola and very disciplined. We always gave her the opportunity to quit at the end of the tuition payment. We're like, "Okay do you want to choose a different hard thing?" She decided to keep going with this instrument. I didn't see the kind of fun and passion that I expected after years of playing. She appreciates the instrument. She plays her viola on Friday nights practicing but she didn't have the love that I thought, the sparkle. So we recently thought we get to add the fun thing rule. The fun thing rule is you have to do something also that's just fun, that doesn't take hard work and practice. For her it's baking and being creative. So I think parents should raise their kids according to some rule that doesn't insist upon a bit of discipline that's reasonable but also that's not to forget there is this sampling and this interest thing. By the time you're a teenager or a young adult in college I think that's when your hard thing and your fun thing ideally begin to grow toward each other. I'm guessing about your work and I feel this way about your work, that it's hard and it's fun. If we can braid those things together ultimately wonderful but at children, if we need to make sure we're checking off two boxes, I think that's a reasonable approach.

Liz: It might just be my own life. I have three little kids. I'm about to have a forth and I feel like I'm a pretty gritty person. But I actually love this idea of a fun thing rule for mothers in particular right. Like in order to be able to show up with resilience for the daily job of motherhood, allowing yourself those fun things that don't have to have a purpose. They're just fun. They just fill your cup. Have you experienced that as a person raising children in the long game of parenthood.

Angela: I think it's really important to fill up your cup. My mom always said that an empty cup never spills over. That was her way of talking about you know those people who are just so generous and they're so wonderful to be with. You know my mom said those are people who are happy themselves and their cup runneth over. So nothing could be truer. I think that as a woman you know not all, but I think there are a lot of us who have this kind of perfectionistic. You just live your entire life by should and ought. It's like I ought to work out. I should eat a salad. I ought to stay up late and help. It's exhausting and I think it leads to a kind of burnout that of course in professional life if you burn out it's terrible. Maybe it impairs your work life but it's even worse if it's motherhood and your family life. So yeah. I think for me it means you know going to yoga a few times a week. It means watching Game of Thrones on my iPad. It means reading Us Weekly. I think other than scientific articles the only thing I've been really loyal to is Us Weekly. So you know.

Liz: About how many times a day I check right now. So.

Angela: I completely honor that habit of yours. There are many worse vices. Yeah you've got to fill up your cup. You gotta fill up your cup. I thin again as a woman I think it took me decades to learn that. I think I spent like a good three decades on the planet just doing the ought and should, you know fulfilling duties. But it's much more fun and much more ultimately better for the people around you to take care of yourself.

Liz: Thank you for sharing that and being so honest about it. I know a lot of us can relate to it. Are there other skills other than grit that are super important for you to develop in your own children?

Angela: I really mean it when I say that grit can't be the very top of the list for truly loving parents. Who wants a gritty kids who's like a jerk right? So for me I think it is most important that like they develop to be kind people and I'll also say given the college cheating scandals that have been occupying a lot of our attention not only on and Us Weekly but the whole country. It's really important that my kids are honest. You know I worry sometimes that the pressure that kids are under these days leads to things like cheating and to some of the things that become almost normal in some sense. Like when you see a bunch of other kids copy each other's homework or look at their phone under their desk when they're taking a quiz. That can very dangerously become okay. I think that's kind of what happened in this college cheating thing. It's like you become somehow insensitive to the immorality of what you're doing because a lot of people are around you are doing it. So I think for me as a mother my most valued character strength is honesty. I am happy to say that I think in that sense they've had a great role model in their dad especially. I mean I'm not a particularly dishonest person but my husband is just like a paradigm of integrity and honesty. I think whatever it is for you as a mom, you know just to be intentional about it. Just to say out loud to yourself what are the things and values that I really care about most. What does it mean to be my kids Duckworth. What does it mean to be in this family? Who do we want to show up in the world as? What do we stand for? Then have some intentionality about that.

Liz: At Motherly we talk about how motherhood brings out our superpowers. This idea that there's hidden forces and strengths within ourselves that we get to truly discover after we become moms. What do you think your superpowers are?

Angela: Oh my superpowers. I love that question. I think that the superpower my kids may have brought out in me is a kind of humility. I say that with some hesitation because I think it's also my super weakness. I think if they were listening they would say, "Humility? You're not the first person we would nominate to be humilities person in the world." So I say that because in part I think sometimes mothers will recognize that the thing they are growing in and are proud that they are is also a weakness. I think that's the case for me. I'm maybe if anything overconfident about what I know. I just have this alpha kind of do it this way. Everyone should turn left here. I think I'm used to being in charge a lot. That has led to a lack of humility that I'm working on. Now how has parenting helped change that is that wow. Is there a more honest audience than your own children? I mean today they're like, "Wow. Those pants mom. Really?" I looked in the mirror and was like, "Oh yeah. These are ridiculous." They told me once when I was practicing for a Ted Talk, "You always bite your lip." I said, " I don't bite my lip." Then they video taped me and said, "See. You bite your lip." Yup. Nobody else told me that. So I think that our superpowers and our super weaknesses can be in a way the same thing. I think it's okay to have whatever it is that you think you're growing in. You can think of it as a weakness or a strength. My kids are probably the biggest source of my personal growth because they don't pull any punches.

Liz: Angela thank you so much for joining us today on the Motherly podcast.

Angela: I've loved it. I really enjoyed our conversation and I think I've learned a lot actually just by articulating some of the answers to the questions you asked.

Liz: Well thank you for saying that. I just appreciate the time you took to share that all with us.

Angela: Wonderful. I hope there's another conversation in our future.

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