Grit is important. Perseverance, effort, the ability to get back up after you’ve been knocked down—these traits matter. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” “No one ever scored a goal without taking a shot.” “Success is dependent on effort.” Pick your adage, the message remains the same: effort brings reward.
Grit, as popularized by Angela Duckworth in her recent work, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”, is in effect the ability to put forth continued effort despite seemingly insurmountable challenges. What really drives success is not genius, she suggests, but that combination of passion and long-term perseverance.
The reality, however, is that the primary ingredients for lifelong success are more expansive and begin within the first several years of life. In his recent New Yorker article, “The Limits of Grit”, David Denby skillfully explains why beliefs like Duckworth’s are misleading because they overlook this critical reality.
Denby does give credit where it’s due. As Denby notes, Duckworth and others do acknowledge the now widely accepted role that non-cognitive skills play in the academic and social success of a child. These include not just grit, but also self-control, zest, optimism, social intelligence, gratitude, and curiosity. But missing in that list of non-cognitive skills is emotional competence. Emotional competence is the ability to be aware of, constructively express, and effectively manage and deal with one’s own emotions and those of others. These skills are fundamental in the development of empathy and self-regulation (the ability to manage and control thoughts, emotions, and behaviors—all critical in learning).
So why is it so important to start to develop emotional competence in the earliest of years? Emotion is our first language and 90 percent of the brain is developed during the first three years of a child’s life. Research shows that this phase of “neuroplasticity” is when a child’s brain is most conducive to being shaped and rewired by daily experiences, interactions, and social environment. This development is informed by the interrelatedness of the brain’s emotional and cognitive circuitry. The more we strengthen emotional skills, the stronger the cognitive skills become.
In his article, Denby acknowledges the work of Jack Shonkoff, the director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, who stresses that children “who do not grow up in an environment of responsive relationships that has buffered them from excessive stress activation” are more likely to lack the foundation necessary for grit and motivation. Denby also points to the work of Paul Tough and others who note that early childhood programs in which adults are responsive to children’s emotional and physical needs can go a long way in helping children (particularly underserved ones) overcome hardship so that they can ultimately learn and succeed. These include programs with home visits by trained professionals who help parents engage meaningfully with their infants and pre-K centers in which babies are treated with affectionate warmth and enfolded.
But it is not enough to talk in vague or abstract terms about early childhood programs that are described as responsive or as treating very young children with warmth. We need to be much more specific about how early childhood programs can provide children critical emotional skills. We must implement evidence-based programs that specifically teach emotional competencies—the building blocks for what common parlance now calls emotional intelligence. We must train our teachers to provide our young children opportunities and experiences to learn how to become aware of, constructively express, and effectively manage and deal with their own emotions and those of others. These experiences are critical for building the emotional foundations for learning and for developing a strong, secure and successful sense of self. Grit is helpful, yes. But grit means nothing if children lack the emotional competence that is the basis on which their long-term health, wellbeing, and success is built.