Have our kids gotten soft? Five ways to teach them grit

Posted at 4:38 PM, Oct 16, 2015

It’s a phrase I’ve heard more than once from friends who are in hiring positions. “Kids today…” they say, referring to employees in their 20s who complain or threaten to quit soon after starting because either the workload isn’t quite what they expected, or the work itself just isn’t what they want to be doing at this age and stage.

Now, I have to commend these millennials for being so self-actualized that they feel very comfortable moving around to find the perfect gig. But I also wonder, where’s the work ethic, the grit, the resilience? I never questioned working around the clock during my first jobs in my 20s because I believed a good work ethic would help me prove myself and move up, and it did.

Millennials don’t stay very long in jobs, said Robin Koval, co-author of provocative new book, “Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion and Pluck Take You From Ordinary to Extraordinary.” “On the one hand, that’s good because they should be aggressive in developing their careers,” she said, “but on the other hand, some of it is because they have a setback at work and the only way they know how to deal with it is ‘I have to go someplace else.'”

Helicopter parenting, coupled with the belief that we should never let our children fail, have given rise to kids who are ill-prepared to cope with life’s challenges, said Koval and her co-author, Linda Kaplan Thaler, in a joint interview. It’s an issue that educators are grappling with today, as colleges across the country are focusing on ways to teach resiliency. With more research showing hyper-involved parenting leads to more anxious and entitled kids, it’s clear that grit and resilience will benefit our kids in school and once they get into the real world.

Kaplan Thaler, who along with Koval co-founded the advertising agency Kaplan Thaler Group, was one of those helicopter parents, too. She told a hilarious story of trying to teach her daughter Emily, then 5, how to ride a bicycle. Two years later, Emily still didn’t know how to ride. “Of course,” Thaler says with a laugh. “God forbid I would let her actually fall.”

It wasn’t until an elderly man approached her one day in the park and told Kaplan Thaler to put her hands in her pockets while he pushed Emily on the bike. The man let her go, and she fell. After several more falls, she started riding.

“She is a well-rounded young lady today and I like to think I had a hand in her success mostly because of keeping it in a pocket,” she said.

Both Kaplan Thaler and Koval, who are also the bestselling authors of “The Power of Nice” and “The Power of Small,” believe the parenting pendulum is swinging back in the “you’re not so wonderful” direction.

“There’s more and more of a pushback against the whole ‘everybody gets a trophy,’ parents going on job interviews with kids … to say ‘You know what? Let your kids take responsibility. Be there in the background if they really need you but it’s good for them to fail once in a while,'” said Koval.

The economic slowdown may lead to a grittier generation, adds Koval, who is now CEO and president of Truth Initiative, one of the nation’s largest national youth-smoking-prevention initiatives.

“These are the kids who are zero to 19 now and, unlike the millennials who grew up in a great economy and better times, these younger kids, they’re really practical,” Koval said. “Like, at the age of 11, they’re planning their careers. They care about money, so I think the future looks bright in that regard.”

At the same time, millennials-and-younger have grown up in a culture that celebrates overnight successes — billionaire tech entrepreneurs and YouTube sensations in their 20s — said Kaplan Thaler, who is now chairman of the advertising agency Publicis NY.

Kids today need to hear about how Colin Powell went from C-minus student to four-star general, how Abraham Lincoln was a failure in business and lost eight elections, and how Thomas Edison was told he would never amount to much. Their famous success stories are among those she and Koval include in their book.

In connection with their book, Kaplan Thaler and Koval produced this video titled “What’s Grit?”

“We love the story of James Dyson. You see a guy who created this brilliant vacuum cleaner. It took him 15 years and he had 5,126 prototypes that … didn’t work, and we’re not seeing that,” said Kaplan Thaler. “All we’re seeing are the end results and our kids are not seeing the sweat equity that goes into it.”

Our culture is so instant right now, added Koval. “When we were growing up … there was an expectation that you kind of had to work really hard if you wanted something to happen. And while you still have to work really hard if you want something to happen in our culture, we hide a lot of that. So it does look like you can become instantly successful.”

What can you do to raise a child who knows what grit is, and works on developing grit, so they can deal with life’s challenges that will inevitably come their way? I have boiled down Kaplan Thaler and Koval’s helpful advice with five tips:

#1 — Make your kids make their beds

In their book, the co-authors talk about how Adm. William H. McRaven, during a commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, said the No.1 lesson he learned from his Navy SEAL training was making your bed. That’s right, not the brutal training that goes into being a Navy SEAL. The top lesson was making his bed every morning. It starts you off in the beginning of the day doing something that you have to learn how to do perfectly, said Koval, and if you, by chance, have a terrible day, when you come home, at least you’ve done one thing right.

“We tend to want to create such wonderful environments for our kids and maybe don’t push (them) enough” when it comes to chores, Koval added. “It’s such simple easy advice to follow … It’s really easy to make them make their beds.”

#2 — Don’t pack their camping gear

When you child is going on a camping trip (or sleepover, or you name it), don’t pack for them, said Kaplan Thaler. “It’s OK if they forget something. And so what if they forget the flashlight? They won’t forget it the next time when they are walking around in the dark.” It’s so hard as a parent to remember that, she admits, but eventually our children are going to learn these lessons on their own, so it’s better they learn it when they are young.

#3 — Encourage your kids to solve small problems

Kids, and adults for that matter, too often see a problem, get overwhelmed by the size and scope of it and then become paralyzed and do nothing about it, said Kaplan Thaler. Instead of trying to solve problems that feel unsolvable, we should find easier problems and solve those first.

“So … do this with your kids and say, ‘OK, you say that you can’t do the science project but [what] can do you? What are the three sources that you could look at every day? Let’s make a list.'”

#4 — Praise the effort, not the end result

This one can’t be repeated enough, especially in our ultra-competitive, testing culture that places an extraordinary emphasis on grades from elementary school up through college. As schools are teaching grit and resilience, part of the grade is determined by the effort that went into the activity, said Kaplan Thaler. “And that’s the thing that we should be applauding. Not like, ‘Gee, this was a breeze and I got a B,’ but ‘Wow, I worked harder than I’ve ever worked and I went from a D to a C plus.’ Whatever it is … you want that approval to come from the effort.”

#5 — Everyone can learn grit

If you have more than one child, no doubt one might be naturally grittier than the other, but that doesn’t need to be a constant for the rest of their lives. Grit is a trait you can develop, said Koval.

“So for kids who are naturally not as gritty, I think it is finding ways for them to see that success does come from grit,” she said. Letting your child occasionally fail also helps them learn grit, she said. So does helping them find the things they really love to do and are successful doing.

When high school and college kids hear this message, it doesn’t demoralize them, it empowers them, said Kaplan Thaler. They might think they are already at a disadvantage because of their grades, test scores or the schools they attend. “What we tell them is it doesn’t matter. What matters is something, we call it humanity’s a great equalizer … It’s all about the work ethic and what you put into a job. And I say my money’s going to be on the person still standing when your boss tells you do it over, do it over, do it over. That’s where the successful people are.”

Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life.