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A teenager is talking with two elderly home residents around a table. They are laughing and smiling.
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True Grit

A couple of mornings every week, I walk my middle-school daughter and my cabin-fever dog to the bus stop on the corner before I head off to work. We live in Denver, and during the winter months it’s as cold as you think it’s supposed to be in the “Mountain” time zone. When the bus is late, the kids are shaking—especially the boys, who insist on wearing basketball shorts no matter what the weatherman says.

The recipe for misery, if you’re a teenager, is the prospect of a long, margin-less day of school preceded by icicles forming at the corner of your mouth. For a long time, something has been happening at that bus stop that really gnaws at me. While most of the kids stand there shivering, making goofy conversation to take their mind off the cold, a few parents habitually drive their fully-functioning teenagers to the stop and have them wait in the warmth of their SUV until the bus pulls up.

Yes, these parents drive their kids a block or two to save them from seven-ish minutes in the cold, then drive back home after the bus leaves. Like most parents, they feel compassion for their kids’ hardships and they look for ways to take the edge off. But it’s just that edge their kids most need, and they are unwittingly denying them a great treasure—it’s called “grit.”

Duke University professor J. Bryan Sexton, a leading researcher in the study of resilience and well-being, says grit “is a function of your ability to cope.” When a hard thing happens, or when a goal is thwarted, grit is the engine that drives perseverance. And in an increasingly challenging world, grit is a more precious resource than any other personal characteristic. So much has been said about the cultural phenomenon of “helicopter parenting” that the concept is now a tired cliché, but the most damaging outcome of an over-responsible parenting style is that it undermines grit in kids.

Psychological researcher Angela Lee Duckworth left her high-stress Manhattan consulting job to take on an even bigger challenge—teaching math to seventh graders in a New York public school. Early on, she noticed that the smartest kids in her class weren’t always the ones who earned the best grades or learned the most. “I came to the conclusion that what we need in education is a much better understanding of students and learning from a motivational perspective, from a psychological perspective. What if doing well in school and in life depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily?”

Duckworth’s fascination with learning outcomes motivated her to leave teaching and go back to school to get a graduate degree in psychology—her goal was to understand why some people succeed in the midst of challenging circumstances while others don’t. For example, her team tried to predict which West Point cadets would stay in military training, and which kids at the National Spelling Bee would advance farthest, and which rookie teachers working in touch neighborhoods would still be teaching at the end of the year.

“One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success,” says Duckworth, “and it wasn’t social intelligence, it wasn’t good looks, or physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit. Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is stamina. Grit is sticking with your future day in and day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. And working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

When Duckworth and her research team turned their focus to juniors in Chicago’s public high schools, they discovered: “Grit-ier kids were significantly more likely to graduate, even when I matched them on every characteristic I could measure… To me, the most shocking thing about grit is how little we know about building it. Every day parents and teachers ask me, ‘How do I build grit in kids?’ The honest answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that talent doesn’t make you gritty… In fact, in our data, grit is usually unrelated, or even inversely related to measures of talent.”

It turns out that Jesus knows quite a bit more than us about what it takes to grow grit. His consistent pattern of interactions with needy people make it easy for me to make this prediction: he would not drive teenagers a block to the bus stop to save them from seven minutes of winter weather. In fact, Jesus felt strongly about injecting hardship into others’ lives, not removing it.

  • In the John 9 story of the man blind from birth, Jesus smears a mixture of dirt and spit on the man’s eyes, then tells him to go to the pool of Siloam (outside of town) to find his sight. Would you force the man through such an unnecessary gauntlet of shame and uncertainty?
  • In the John 5 story of the crippled man who has languished by the pool of Bethesda for 38 years, Jesus asks a question that seems either silly or lacking in compassion: “Do you want to be healed?” When the man ignores the offense of the question and says “yes,” Jesus tells him (essentially), “Well, pick up your pallet and get moving!”
  • In Matthew 15, a Canaanite woman grovels, pleading with Jesus to heal her daughter of demon possession. But he first ignores her, and then treats her with apparent scorn: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” In the awkward silence that follows, the woman’s grit rises to the surface: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

If we’re to live in the spirit of Jesus, then we’ll do as he does. And what Jesus does is grow grit in every person he meets. He finds do-able ways to inject hardship into circumstances that would tempt us to offer a soft response instead. The crisis of obesity in our culture demands that we use artificial means to grow and stay fit. And our culture’s crisis of grit demands that courageous ministry leaders like you and me use every means possible to grow resilience in our teenagers.

 

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True Grit

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