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No, Babies Aren't Too Young to Learn Grit

Photograph by Twenty20

Grit is all the rage in education and life, and it turns out that kids as young as 15 months old can learn it. But unlike developmental milestones, such as sitting up or crawling, humans might actually have to learn persistence from watching someone, well, persist.

That someone can be you, Mom and Dad.

A new study out of MIT published in the journal Science found that even super-young kids could learn grit, "the combination of perseverance and passion," by playing with their parents or other adults. But the type of play that was effective, at least based on the initial study, was more subtle than peekaboo or passing a ball back and forth. Instead, when babies observed adults struggling with a task, they tended to be up for a longer struggle with other tasks themselves.

Laura Schulz, a professor of cognitive science at MIT and senior author on the study; graduate student and senior author Julia Leonard; and undergraduate and co-author Yuna Lee wanted to figure out whether grit was something you were born with or whether it's a trait that could be learned. So they brought in a cohort of 15-month-olds, half of whom saw an adult easily take a frog out of a box and also remove a key chain from a carabiner. The other half of the kids watched the adult struggle for more than 30 seconds before succeeding with both tasks. Whew! Got 'er done.

Next, the adult showed the baby a toy that played music. On it was what appeared to be an on/off button, but one that didn't actually work. Concealed on the ball was a button that could turn the toy on and off. Without showing the baby, the adult turned the toy on to show that it could play music and then, again secretly, turned the toy off.

Researchers then gave the babies the toy.

Each child was given two minutes to play with it while researchers recorded how many times the babies tried to turn on the ball with the fake button. Those babies who had watched an adult struggling more than 30 seconds with the frog and keychain in the initial game pressed the fake button twice as many times as those whose adults had easily gotten the frog and keychain taken care of.

We're teaching our kids how to respond to frustration and roadblocks based on pretty basic activities.

What the researchers took from this is that even at this young age, kids can understand the concept that hard work has a payoff—and "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again" is a great slogan for a onesie. Just keep trying because you've got the power within to make this toy play really awful music!

While the researchers had set out to see whether they could tease apart passion and persistence (aka grit) from conscientiousness, what they found has important implications for parents. How we behave, with regard to even the little things—including during playtime—is making an impression on our kids. We're teaching them how to respond to frustration and roadblocks based on pretty basic activities.

And don't blame DNA. It's only Dad's fault if Dad is the one doing everything for your daughter, who seems to give up way too soon.

Also notably important is what we often hear with regard to older kids: the value in letting kids struggle. If we're going to raise kids who are persistent, we need to give them opportunities where they can decide to persist. The takeaway advice: Let kids try new things, don't step in unless you're asked to and, if you've got it in you, quit making everything look so dang easy.

Struggle a little with that frog in the toy box.

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