Why ‘grit’ isn’t always a good thing – Lucy Pearson

The Telegraph, 18.06.15, we must ensure that we do not teach children that asking for help or admitting they cannot cope is a sign of weakness, writes HMC member Lucy Pearson, Head of Cheadle Hulme School.

There is plenty written about ‘grit’ and its importance as a quality; in education circles, the term famously coined by Angela Duckworth has mistakenly become a catch-all promoting the belief that in order to demonstrate great character, we have to stick at something no matter what; anything less than total commitment to the bitter end and we are seen as weak.

Sometimes however the stronger thing to do is to acknowledge that you need to make a change. Grit is not always a good thing; if you have that piece of grit in your eye do you bravely soldier on believing that suffering will make you stronger; or do you take some time out and deal with the problem so that you can move forward in a happier state?

In Paul Tough’s excellent ‘How Children Succeed’ he explains that, for Duckworth, grit is “the passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.”

It is not in fact, as some might have us believe, the “clench the teeth, get your head down and carry on no matter what” attitude; this approach only means that you won’t see the wall right in front of you. And unless you work out a way to get over or around it, the wall will always be between you and the fulfilment of your mission.

Grit is about resilience and intelligent commitment.

How many of us have quietly thanked our good fortune for not being a teenager in today’s world? The modern world with its complexity and unrelenting pace puts a huge burden on young people and coping with that burden, let alone thriving within it, can be challenging.

Young people need to understand that for any of us to get to where we want to go, we must expect challenge, recognise it when we are confronted by it and know how to respond to it in an intelligent and effective manner.

Often, the first act of grit is not to stubbornly carry on, but rather to take a moment to evaluate whether we are in the right place doing the right thing in the right way. This is particularly important when a young person is feeling mentally or emotionally vulnerable.

I worry that in banging the drum about ‘catch-all’ grit, we inadvertently convey the message that asking for help is weakness and thus prevent young people from seeking help when they really need it.

The truth is that there are many things in life that we cannot do on our own and nor should we. We are often times stronger together and we must be careful not to suggest that a) young people should have all of the answers all of the time and b) when they don’t have the answers, then simply keeping going will bring them to the right outcome in the end.

Brilliantly entertaining as it was, I am reminded of Dory’s mantra from Disney’s Finding Nemo: “When life gets you down, you know what you gotta do..? Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”

Whilst the simplicity of her attitude is a strength at a number of points, the film shows that fulfilling the mission is about working with others to overcome challenges.

In education we must ensure that whilst we develop resilience in young people, we do not teach them that asking for help and admitting that we are afraid or feel that we cannot cope is in any way a sign of weakness; admitting our fears and worries – that is the grittiest thing to do.

Grit needs to be explained very carefully to our children, because it is important. To demonstrate grit, the individual must be able to see the context in which they operate, demonstrate a good level of tenacity and be able to adjust their pathway as required to achieve their goal.

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