Grit, self-confidence, and self-esteem: predictive value?

A recent thread on redshirting for school entry has been iced for reasons that are none of my concern. No worries, we’ve had redshirting discussions before, but it had been getting to a point of what I was thinking was an interesting digression that I am going to bring up in its own thread:

One position was that creating a more self-confident child (confident because they have had many successes, made the sports teams, etc.) would create a more self-confident adult which is a good thing.

The other position was that learning how to not always win, that success is not something that just happens easily, that obstacles need to be overcome and persevered past, getting back up when knocked down, what gets referred to as “grit”, is the more important skill to inculcate.

Now of course the two are not opposite ends of a pole. Some confidence that one will be able to eventually prevail with persistence and tenacity is required to create grit. A child who always fails no matter how hard they try is unlikely to learn tenacity. But a child who never fails is also unlikely to learn how to persevere in its face and to see adversity as a challenge.

So the HO question: given a child with natural abilities of X whatever that is, which would you feel is more important to foster - grit (maybe best thought of as tenacity in the face of failures), or self-confidence and high self-esteem?

Accepting that either extreme is in fact not ideal, given ability level X is it better long term to grow up competing against those who you can beat more than half of the time, or competing against those who you lose to more than half of the time?

I’m choosing grit and that confidence is overrated. Some degree of insecurity is actually desirable. It drives us. I cannot find the study but I distinctly remember one that found an inverse correlation between perception of math ability and performance on testing of math ability … kids who are actually good in math are pushed into harder classes and given problems that they struggle with so think they are not so great while kids who are not stay in the lower levels given more problems that they can solve.

Having too little confidence to try is clearly undesirable but unwarranted confidence is disastrous.

I agree. It’s like the self-esteem thing. You should have confidence based on your actual abilities, and it should be balanced by enough insecurity to make sure your confidence is grounded in reality. In general I don’t like the idea of ‘molding’ children, give them room to grow, don’t constrain them. All within reason though, they are just children, there will be a time and place for everything.

Well really grit and self-confidence are pretty much the same thing: the belief that one can achieve a desired result by continuing to act in a particular way despite failure along the way. It is fostered by achievement.

Self esteem, which is what is currently encouraged, is the bogus participant in this equation. It is an externally focused comparative opinion about your own abilities not necessarily based on achievement. People can build their self esteem simply by acquiring money, status, possessions or physical attractiveness.

It is a long established psychological truth that dependence on self esteem may actually hinder self confidence and grit. The unwillingness to risk “looking bad” by failing because of the threat to one’s self esteem causes an avoidance of risk taking and hinders development.

Not to be that guy, but I think the real answer is agency. Kids with a sense of self-efficacy are the ones that are the most successful. I think both the self-esteem techniques and the grit techniques can build agency up, and both can destroy it, if applied improperly.

For example, I’m a teacher and the most common mistake I see in good teachers that are never going to be great is that they really get into the “I only award meaningful accomplishment. I’m not here to make anyone feel good” type stuff. They remember their own sink-or-swim experience, and that it made them a better person, and so they try to replicate it. They say things like 'I need to clear out the deadwood" in their advanced classes, and they tell the kids the first day of school how few students make an A in their class. This does inspire some kids to work really hard, but there’s a terrible bias there: it’s easy to look at the ones that thrive and think it’s working, and forget the ones you lost along the way. These teachers live in a pleasant state of righteous indignation, telling each other “I gave him every chance” and nodding sagely.

My class is so easy. I don’t grade anything, it feels like. Completion grades all the time. The only way to fail, honestly, is to hack into my gradebook and change the grade to failing. It appalls people, who think I’m “giving away something for nothing”. But my kids’ performances on standardized tests–SAT and my AP exam–blow away every previous trend in this school–our SAT average score went from the 70th percentile to the 90th, and the pass rate on the two tests I taught went from 50% to 70%. What works, it turns out, is building agency. I don’t grade almost anything, and nothing is high stakes–because when I did, they saw me as the one with the power and the investment, and the cheated or tried to game my system. With the time I save, I spend mornings and afternoons endlessly meeting with kids individually, looking over what they have done, and telling them what they need to next. In class, I remind them constantly why they are doing what they are doing and what they need to get there. What is remarkable is that they go home and do it. Not all of them–but more than were really doing anything before. And it keeps working: every year, my grades get more inflated and every year they work harder and with more purpose–because they have agency.

Kids need challenge and real accomplishment to build grit and self-esteem, but they need very knowledgeable and deliberate pacing to help them get there. Yes, too much “help” and artificial praise makes them weak and unable to rise to a challenge, but too much or a challenge and too little recognition of what they have accomplished makes them feel frustrated and helpless.

I know there are plenty of parents that overindulge their kids and do too much to protect their self-esteem. But from the point of view of a high school teacher, I know a lot more parents (and teachers) that ignore real accomplishments because they have a limited view of what is an accomplishment or because they don’t really care. I see more kids that need what they have done to be validated than kids who think they should get a trophy for showing up.

Manda Jo you sound like a great teacher. Wish there were more like you.

Well on this subject you do have the bona fides to be that guy, certainly more than the rest of us.

Is there a distinction in your mind between “agency” and “locus of control”? Are there ages and developmental stages that different degrees of agency are realistic to expect and also different ways to promote it for those stages?

Your outcomes are impressive but still what you are reporting to us is shorter term and more limited in scope than what I am asking about. It’s starting with a group in High School often already with whatever (grit, self-confidence, ambition, ability …) enough to sign up for an AP class and who already averaged above well average on SATs and looking at outcomes over the one or maybe two years. I’m asking more broadly and into adult life course outcomes. (I also recognize the actual data on this is sparse, hence it’s being an IMHO.)

Yes, the best teacher, the best parent, will get each child to be the best whoever they are they can be, whatever that turns out to mean for that individual, and not only focus on and validate the highest achievers.

by your definitions, i would say that grit is not only the more important goal, but its through grit that true self esteem and self confidence is earned.
i never understood why we are taught that losing is somehow shameful. losing is part of the process. you cant have a winner without a loser, they exist together, they compliment each other. obviously, the short term goal of any competition is winning, but the long term goal should be learning how to win; being able to objectively assess your performance and work on problem areas to minimize or eliminate them.

yes, motivation comes from being proud of your own achievements and victories, not from being ashamed of your losses.


I like “agency” because it’s an internal quality. But there is certainly overlap with “locus of control”. I don’t like “grit” because it’s so ambition focuses. I don’t think my kids have to be “gritty”, certainly not to the point that they are miserable. I just want them to feel empowered.

[Aside] We did one of those “whole city reads” deals a few years ago and they chose “True Grit”. I thought it was an inspired choice, because it’s a good book. However, they put up this billboard with a young John Wayne and the quote “I don’t much like quitters” and I realized they totally missed the point of that book. Both Rooster and the narrator have grit, yes, but the COST of that grit is tremendous and it’s by no means obvious that what they got was worth that cost. [/aside]

But I think we agree on the main point but disagree on what is the current norm: I see a lot of people who are really big one “making them earn it” and not “praising a kid for showing up” often have quite unrealistic ideas about what is a reasonable degree of agency. For many people, the goal is to “separate the sheep from the goats” or “clear out the deadwood” (you have no idea how often I hear that phrase from teachers). I don’t think kids fail to learn agency because they get too many participation trophies. I think they fail to learn agency because people withhold praise and attention for anything short of a miraculous achievement in what is really a highly competitive culture, and we hesitate to help kids figure things out for themselves–we either hand it to them, or ask them to figure it all out themselves. It’s like a cooking class where you either get a frozen dinner to microwave, or your given a hatchet, set loose in the woods, and told to bring back an egg custard.

This is the hard part, of course–you have to set meaningful, realizable goals and provide enough scaffolding, but not too much. It’s easy to miss the mark, but that’s okay, too: childhood is long, and you don’t have to be perfect. But the goal is to always think in terms of increasing that internal motivation/control, NOT withholding support they need to get there nor withholding praise for genuine accomplishments.

Full disclosure, I"m in a magnet program, albeit an urban, Title 1 magnet, so there is certainly a higher baseline of agency–either in the child or the parent. But that’s also why I don’t compare my results against the national average: it’s meaningless. However, as a magnet our cohort are probably more consistent than most, so changing internal trends are meaningful. As a school we’ve been shifting more and more towards the agency model for the last several years, and the impact on our classes has been dramatic. I don’t think we take a single grade for math homework 9-12 anymore, and our math scores have gone from impressive to damn near perfect. It works.

Would it work in a comprehensive program? Would it work with younger kids? I think probably the best organization right now for this sort of thing is the Scouts. They really have worked out a scope and sequence of gradually increasing agency that builds capacity. And they start at 7. I would love to see comprehensive programs go to a more agency-based model.