Why our obsession with straight A’s with college as the end goal is misguided and what parents should be focused on instead
BY DANNY INY FEBRUARY 2019
Most parents desperately want their kids to do well in school. That means chasing straight A’s (or as close to that goal as possible). The message we constantly hear is that grades are everything—especially the almighty GPA—because that’s what will get kids into college. And they must go to college because that’s the only pathway to a successful life. Right?
Wrong, says Danny Iny. Grades do matter, but mostly because they’re a natural byproduct of a student’s fortitude. Rather than focusing on grades per se, parents should focus on encouraging and developing the fortitude itself. And by the way—emphasizing college as the holy grail at the end of childhood’s journey is a mistake.
“Higher education is on the brink of a massive shake-up,” says Iny, author of Leveraged Learning: How the Disruption of Education Helps Lifelong Learners and Experts with Something to Teach and CEO of the online business education company Mirasee. “Evolving skillset requirements are forcing us to rethink everything. We’re having to prepare people for jobs that don’t even exist yet—and part of that task is to instill fortitude.”
Business moves so quickly—due to advances in artificial intelligence, shifting consumer behaviors, and other trends—that new industries and professions are continuously being created. It’s becoming more and more clear that frontloading four years of “just in case” training at the start of one’s career doesn’t make sense. A lifelong process where employees can access relevant trainings “just in time” to use them when they need them is better on almost every front.
“Alternatives to the traditional college path are starting to appear, and progressive employers are already starting to drop the degree requirement,” notes Iny. “As parents, we need to talk to our kids about these options. But also—and just as important—we need to instill that elusive ability to keep going when the going gets tough.”
Grit. Fortitude. Mental toughness. Whatever you want to call it, this quality is deeply important to employers. It’s grit that drives employees to keep pushing on challenging projects, enables them to solve problems, and so forth.
Also, the brand of grit that Iny calls “learning fortitude” will be even more important as our education system evolves. Why? Because the ongoing learning employees will face is voluntary, not mandatory. To show up consistently for an online course, and to do skill-building tasks on top of their other work, is hard. And we can do hard things only if we have fortitude.
The good news is that grit isn’t something you’re either born with or not. It can be developed. That’s why it’s so important to provide guidance and opportunities at home to help your kids master grit. Just a few of Iny’s suggestions:
Model and Teach Optimism
It’s the mindset that keeps us from quitting. It’s not the information we have that drives our decisions, but rather the inferences that we draw from that information. Martin Seligman has identified three patterns of bad inferences that can lead to bad decisions (like quitting when it’s unwarranted). He calls them the three Ps of Pessimism: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.
If a child draws an inference like “It’s my fault” (personalization), “My whole life is awful” (pervasiveness), or “It’s always going to be awful” (permanence), they will likely give up. Therefore, model optimism but also narrate it to your kids when they express pessimistic thoughts: “I know you’re upset about getting a C in math, but look, you got As in all your other classes!” or, “Just because you didn’t make the team this year doesn’t mean you never will. Why don’t you set a goal to practice five days a week and try again next year?”
Don’t Shield Kids from Adversity
A key ingredient in building fortitude in kids is high adversity with high support. Don’t let them avoid stress or challenges, but insist that they face it with support from you. “I know learning to play the violin is difficult. I also know you can learn it. Let’s set aside a few hours this weekend for you to practice, and we’ll go out for ice cream later.”
Figure Out What Intrinsically Motivates Him or Her and Provide It When Your Child Works Hard
You may despair that your kids seem motivated only to do fun things like play video games. But humans of all ages are motivated by rewards. (It’s the hit of dopamine your child gets for very little effort that makes video games so compelling.) While adults are motivated by rewards like money or power, kids tend to respond to food, gifts, praise, and special treats like an outing. “So when your child exhibits a desired behavior—like a steady focus on a homework task—provide a reward,” says Iny. “For preschoolers, it might be an extra mini-marshmallow or the chance to hold a flashcard with their favorite animal; for older ones, it might be accumulating points that they can save up to redeem for a reward. Or offer a celebratory break; try to reward enduring longer and longer periods between breaks, taking several weeks to work them up gradually from 5 minutes to 25 minutes of steady focus.”
Teach Him or Her the WOOP Method
A powerful tactic in developing fortitude is to prepare for obstacles before they occur. Gabriele Oettingen, a leading psychologist at New York University and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking, has created a strategy for doing this called mental contrasting—you concentrate on a positive outcome and simultaneously imagine potential obstacles on the way to success. Her mnemonic WOOP can help you remember:
J Wish: What is an important wish that you want to accomplish? Your wish should be challenging but feasible.
J Outcome: What’s the result you envision? Really pause and take a little time to visualize the desired outcome.
J Obstacle: What’s the main obstacle that might prevent you from achieving that outcome?
J Plan: What’s an effective action to overcome that obstacle? Make a “when-then” plan; WHEN you encounter that obstacle, THEN you’ll take this action.
“Having a plan can make the difference in whether a child gives up or keeps going,” says Iny. “Guide children in thinking through this process but don’t do it for them. This is a skill they will need to use for the rest of their life.”
In his book, Iny points out that around ninth grade, most people begin to shift from a growth mindset to a fixed mindset. They begin to think of their intelligence and other abilities as fixed traits that they are born with and must accept. They become increasingly afraid to take intellectual risks or make mistakes for fear of hurting their grades. The most successful students aren’t afraid to take risks or fail. They trust themselves to learn from each mistake and get better in the process.
But what if you have a risk-averse child? Iny suggests the following:
J Design “baby steps” to help your child face their fears. For instance, if they’re afraid of heights, try encouraging them to balance as they walk on a railroad track before they try crossing a tree that’s stretched across a ravine.
J Design scenarios where you invite your child to take a risk that’s completely optional (they can legitimately go one way or the other) but there’s a reward for taking the risk.
J Tell stories about risk takers. Discuss with kids whether they would have been comfortable making that choice, what they would have done instead, whether it would have been wiser for the character to mitigate the risk, what they could have done in order to do that, and how the rewards could potentially have been affected.
“We must all learn to take appropriate risks and balance the risk with the potential reward,” says Iny. “One of the biggest risks in a child’s world is foregoing short-term gain in exchange for a bigger long-term reward. For instance, ‘Why should I sacrifice the next hour of my life that I could spend playing video games, and do yard work instead? What reward do I get out of that?’
“It takes an incredible amount of trust, from the child’s perspective, that the grit they develop by raking leaves will actually come with any payoff, much less a bigger payoff than the instant payoff of the video game,” he adds. “To push the child to take that risk, you may have to implement appropriate consequences if they don’t do the chore in order to help even the scales.”
It will surely take grit to survive in the workplace of the future, says Iny. Tomorrow’s workers will always have to push themselves to keep learning.
“Whether your child goes to a traditional college or takes an alternate path, grit will help them excel,” says Iny. “But more importantly, when they get out into the workforce, it will really serve them well. Employers will quickly see this trait in them and will likely pay a premium for it. In many ways, grit is the ticket to a successful life, and the best part is you write it yourself.”