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True Grit – Building Capacity Not Dependency

“It’s not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves, that will make them successful human beings.” Ann Landers.

It is symptomatic of our modern society that parents are increasingly taking on responsibility for their children’s actions. Not only does this result in a lack of resilience and self-reliance in young people, but there is also a growing body of research linking the relationship between parental control and lack of deep learning. This natural nurturing of the young by adults has become, in some cases, overprotection and it limits and stifles their growth, independence and creativity. So, how can something so central to parenting have come to this?

It seems that the balance between performance and achievement on the one hand, and experience and learning on the other, has shifted. We have become more concerned at the ‘destination’; the good marks and the social standing, rather than the journey. Have we as a consequence become overwhelmed by fear of failure? Have we ultimately given up experience and long-term learning, for short-term achievement and a place on the podium?

Good parenting, like good education, provides for a caring, ‘secure base’ and a ‘safe haven’ from which children can grow; as well as opportunities that may mean facing risks and disappointments. It involves allowing young people the time to move from being a novice to becoming an expert. In allowing this we encourage our children to  make mistakes, put these mistakes into perspective, and try something different next time. It’s what psychologist Angela Duckworth calls “Grit”, and is fundamental to learning and growth.


Duckworth based her idea on Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old protagonist of True Grit, the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, and the film True Grit, with John Wayne.

Duckworth explains “It is really about this young girl, who against all odds, pursues a very long-term, almost impossible goal and eventually, eventually — with the emphasis on “eventually”—succeeds in that goal”.

Duckworth’s research connects non-cognitive skills, like self-control, to school success. “Grit” captures something educators recognise, but had not named or tried to teach.  She has developed the Grit Scale for children, which identifies qualities like diligence, hard work, sustained effort, and the ability to focus on a goal without getting discouraged by setbacks. “Grit”, though, is context specific. “By definition, you cannot be gritty at everything.” says Duckworth.

Another researcher and writer, Dr Carol Dweck, has applied this idea to learning. In her book, Mindset (2006), Dweck makes a compelling case for how the attitude we hold has a profound influence on our lives. Dweck points to two different mindsets; a ‘fixed mindset’ where we view our talents and temperament as determined at birth, and a ‘growth mindset’, where we view our basic qualities as elements that can be cultivated through our own efforts.

In the world of the ‘fixed mindset’, getting a bad result on an exam is about failure. Why get involved in something that is going to make me look bad or show me as a loser? However, in the world of the ‘growth mindset’, getting a bad result is not about being smart or dumb or a loser; it is about effort. How hard did I try on the exam? Was I realistic about how much study I needed to do? What am I going to do next time to improve? Although people may differ in talents, aptitudes, interests and temperaments, the ‘growth mindset’ encourages us to see that everyone can grow and change through application and experience.


It is easy to see how this belief (that certain desired qualities can be developed over time) creates a passion for learning. Why hide deficiencies when we can work on overcoming them? Why seek out the safe and known instead of experiences that will stretch and challenge us to do better? The desire to stretch ourselves and stick at an activity, even when it is getting difficult or not going well, is the hallmark of the ‘growth mindset’. This encourages us to thrive during some of the most challenging times of our lives!

Parents, according to Dweck, play a key role in helping children develop a ‘growth mindset’. Often, parents think they can hand children permanent confidence, like a gift, by praising their brains and talent. This however, can backfire as children can doubt themselves as soon as something gets hard or goes wrong. The best gift we can give our children is to teach them to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort and keep on learning. This way, children won’t be slaves of praise, but masters of their own burgeoning sense of confidence.

We all have a role to play in developing young people. Parents and schools need to work together to achieve the best possible environment in which children can, and do, grow.

 Geoff Newton, Principal

Hillbrook Anglican School

(Co-Educational Yr 7-12)

Hillbrook  Open Day 6 August 2015 – 10am – 2pm

This article was published in Issue 5 of our print magazine, August/September 2014.

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Janine Mergler

Janine Mergler is a veteran Queensland teacher, graduating from QUT with a BEd majoring in Social Sciences. After many years in the classroom, Janine moved on to academia. She has proudly trained new generations of teachers in her role as a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Education. She has also worked in the Queensland Government as an education specialist, developing education resources and delivering community awareness programs to help families conserve water. Currently she is the owner and editor of Families Magazine, a publication specifically targeted at parents who value a quality education for children.  Janine leads a team of professionals who write about family lifestyle, early childhood, schools and education information and family-friendly events.

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