Harnessing Grit

Article by Jill Qualters, Navy Spouse.  To read more of Jill’s work, visit: http://keepcalmandhaveacosmo.blogspot.com/

Photo Credit: Nicki Varkevisser

“Grit is a measurement of sandpaper, and determination. In both cases it defines an ability to change surroundings, and not be changed.” ~ Mike Loomis

The new school year is here. New pencils and bright colored folders, freshly energized parents and excited children, crisp fall air and high expectations. For thousands of military kids each fall, it is more than just a new teacher or new pair of shoes; it is an entirely new school, perhaps even a new country, and a different level of anticipation and nervousness.

According to Military One Source, the average military child will attend between six and nine school districts between Kindergarten and 12th Grade. This change of friends, surroundings, and expectations can be jarring and difficult. It is a challenge that we face as a united group of military families; almost all of us can understand the anxiety and guilt about moving our children to another school. We pore over online search engines reading everything we can about a new town, we ask Facebook, we ask friends, and we cross our fingers and hope that we make good choices and that our children will thrive in their vulnerable state.

Success in school is a universal desire of parents. Flourishing in their environment, making friends, doing well academically and finding athletic success are all goals that are made and achieved through grade school and beyond. But what predicts success? What can we do as parents, and more specifically as military families, to help our children thrive on their unique educational adventure?

Much is made of book smarts and high IQs. Children are labeled as “gifted” or “exceptional” based on standardized tests that put them in a higher IQ realm than the average. But what about those factors that are harder to test?  Factors such as resilience, perseverance, tenacity and grit have been studied more extensively in the past few years. Angela Duckworth, a professor and researcher at Stanford University, long thought that IQ wasn’t necessarily the best predictor of success. She hypothesized that grit, defined by her as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” would determine a child’s educational and professional outcome more than just IQ alone.

With that hypothesis in mind she set out to study grit and determination in many different settings and age groups. She went to the Chicago Public Schools, the United States Military Academy at West Point and the National Spelling Bee to see if it was the students who were the “smartest” or the students with the most grit who succeeded more often. In all environments she found that grittier kids were significantly more likely to be successful, even when controlled for things like family income, standardized test scores and how they felt about school in general.


Duckworth contends that we as parents and teachers need a better understanding of education from a psychological and motivational perspective. To raise our children to “stick to their future [goals], day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years.” Military families are in a unique position to foster resilience and grit in children.

Military children are placed in uniquely stressful and vulnerable environments over the course of their childhood. They move a lot, make new friends over and over, attend many schools and face deployments and separations. Because these challenges are mostly built into our lifestyle, we are in a unique position to watch resilience, grit and determination in full force. When faced with an adverse or challenging experience, researchers have found that our brain physiologically changes. Like a muscle, our brain can change and grow and develop a sort of brain muscle memory. If you experience many challenges, your brain will physiologically change to accommodate that stress. You grow by doing, and if you apply the right resources at the optimal time you will literally build resilience. How do you build resilience? By being resilient.

Unfortunately, these stressors can also have great negative impact on the development of our children too. There is also resilience fatigue, a condition where we have maxed out our resources and cannot continue on the same path without faltering. Finding the balance and staying in the middle, in a place of challenge and resistance, but not too much or too little, is important.

The temperament of our children naturally makes a huge difference in how they will respond to the stressors of the military lifestyle. The introspective introvert will likely have more trouble making friends than the outgoing and bold kid. However, having an appreciation for our child’s personality and working toward building strong connections and healthy relationships can build resilience and grit and possibly even steel them from adversity.


Kelsey McHugh, an 18 year old who will be starting at Penn State in the fall, speaks fondly of her childhood as a military child. Over the course of grade school and high school she attended four different schools, one twice, and lived in many different states. When I asked her about her experience she spoke enthusiastically about “making new friends and seeing new places.”  She said that she got her outgoing nature from the California and her “southern charm” from Tennessee. The various deployments over the years bonded her to her mother and sisters, Kelsey laughed as she spoke of the “girl power” t-shirts that they wore when her father was away. She feels that the military lifestyle made her more adventurous, preparing her for her upcoming freshman year 3,000 miles away from home.

Kelsey is obviously the “outgoing and bold” kid mentioned above. However, her parents and grandparents made sure to frame the military lifestyle as a positive experience: an adventure, not an annoyance. They taught her both through words and experiences that nothing is insurmountable, and that if you move through an experience with a determined attitude that you will come out on the other side a stronger and more accomplished individual.  There are lessons that she will carry with her throughout college and her personal and professional life: deployments are difficult, but they are concluded with homecomings; moves are hard, but the new friends one makes and the new locations you see and cultures you explore make it worth it.  When we talked, it was apparent that she was proud of her history and looking forward to new adventures at Penn State.

Building resilience in our children is a tricky endeavor.  Angela Duckworth, when giving her TED Talk about grit in April of 2013, laughed when people asked her the obvious question: “how?”

The military has studied resilience in families extensively. Keeping families together is a major factor in retention of soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines. For children, no resource or “trick” is as influential as the examples you set as a parent, and of course, the act of actually living your life with some adversity built in. Most of us can remember a time where we were stressed out and that stress bled right into the fabric of the whole family. The opposite is true as well. Being mindful of our attitudes toward the military lifestyle, deployments, or simply a new school year will make a large difference in the attitudes and outlook of our children.

As the new school year approaches, take comfort that the military lifestyle is one that can produce wonderful, resilient and gritty kids. The lessons that our children learn from both the adversity they face and the adventures they experience will shape their personalities and prepare them for not only this school year, but for life.


Leave a Comment