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The Opposite of Grit–Why Kids Quit

April 17, 2018

It can be painful to watch talented kids quit. We muse how successful this kid would be if he just had grit and resilience. We might have even said it outright, “You have so much talent. If you just…”

And yet even Paul Tough, one of the leading authors on grit, would be the first to say, that we can’t teach [or implore] students to be grittier. And telling a kid he shouldn’t or can’t quit rarely does much good. So do we stand by and allow talented kids to “throw away” their gifts?! Of course not.

It’s Natural to Want to Quit

According to evolutionary psychologists, wanting to quit is the most natural human response when we face challenges. Most of us are hardwired to avoid failure; it’s only a small percent who are born with the natural preference to pursue the thrill of success over the potential discomfort of being unsuccessful.

Tough provides helpful examples of how grit can be nurtured and developed over time. Unfortunately, that’s not so helpful in the here and now when you have a talented student who is ready to quit.

The Solution: Empathy!

why kids quit

image credit: Abby Weinstein

Identify the Reason

Understanding students’ discomfort with failure can enable you to help them overcome it. You don’t need to agree with your student’s rationale to empathize with it. Keep in mind that most students lack the self-awareness of their strengths. They are also unlikely to have the perspective of the consequences of quitting.

Listen to their reasons, offer an alternative point of view, and hopefully help them see that there’s not as much risk in failing as they might think. And plenty of upside if they continue. It might not guarantee they grit it out, but history suggests it will have greater efficacy than simply extolling the benefits of success.

Address the Cause

There are no magic bullet phrases that will convince students why their fears might be unwarranted. However, if this is a conversation you’ve never had before, it might be best to prepare yourself for the varied responses you might hear:

  • Everyone else is better. Lack of self-confidence is probably the number one reason kids quit. We can’t tell kids to be self-confident. But our belief in them will make a difference. Remind them why you believe in them, even if they don’t believe in themselves.
  • But, I’m bad at this [one] skill.  Rather than telling them how good they are overall, openly discuss their strengths and their weaker skills. Carefully choose your words to acknowledge where they aren’t as strong–be honest, objective, and kind.  Help them see how they can use their strengths to compensate for their weaker skills.
  • I don’t have time.  They might be right. In general, today’s kids are overworked and don’t get sufficient sleep. Help them budget their time so they can keep going.
  • What if… Fear of the unknown is natural. Some students imagine the worst. Help them visualize a realistic version of the future, one that includes success. Encourage them to take things one task, one day or one week at a time. Remind them you are there to lean on when things feel scary.
  • Remember the time I… Past mistakes can be haunting. We are all prone to more vividly remember our mistakes than our successes. Do your best not to bring up past mistakes unless it is constructive. And then teach students self-forgiveness. Remind them that making mistakes is an essential part of improving. And that while they might clearly remember their mistakes, it’s likely that no one else does. (Most people are too busy focusing on their own prior mishaps.)
  • No one else has… It’s natural for students to think they are the only ones struggling or that everyone else’s lives are Instagram-perfect. Sharing true stories of your own obstacles or those of former students can be extraordinarily powerful.




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