The now familiar concept of grit resonates with middle and upper class parents, but what is not often discussed is how different this quality can appear in disadvantaged children. People who exhibit grit go after something with passion, overcome obstacles, and never give up until they have achieved their goal. This quality has been found to be one of the most important traits necessary for success in college and life. Discussions about grit tend to focus on experiences of grinding out straight A’s, overcoming obstacles to make varsity sports teams, or attaining entrance into elite colleges. But what about kids who grow up in poverty?
The development of grit unfolds differently for underprivileged youth due to facing unique challenges. Many of these kids begin kindergarten already a year of two behind their better off peers. They commonly have to switch schools several times a year due to housing problems. Think about just that challenge alone. Kids have to get used to a new classroom, teacher, set of rules, and once they are adjusted, wham! They are moved to another building and the process begins again.
These kids commonly live in a home without a dad and have a mom who works more than one job. This means they often come home to an empty house and must fend for themselves until evening. Many of their neighborhoods are unsafe and violence swirls around them. This year in St. Louis 22 children have been killed in a three-month period. Some kids also experience domestic violence inside the walls of their home. Children exposed to such violence can develop PTSD symptoms and resultant brain changes that results in inattention, state control problems, emotional overreactions, and aggression.
Many kids living in poverty also experience parents with mental health issues like depression. Nearly 6 million kids in the US have experienced losing a parent to prison or jail at some point in their lives. I assisted my son at a weekend retreat for high school boys several years ago, and I was struck by how many issues they had faced. Barry Zuckerman M.D. called this phenomenon double jeopardy. His research found that it usually wasn’t just one life challenge that caused kids the most problems; it was the combination of many such factors such as maternal depression, violence exposure, and in utero drug exposure. The teens at the retreat started crying deeply the first night as they related their sad stories. They wept about not having a dad in their lives, worrying about younger siblings’ safety in dangerous neighborhoods, moms who were depressed and emotionally distant, and their lack of hope for their futures.
Poverty is less about lack of money and more-so about a lack of relationships, support, dignity, opportunity, segregation, and hopes and dreams for a brighter future.
For these kids, grit looks like trying to keep up with their education despite going to school hungry, lacking supplies like pens, books, notebooks, binders and backpacks, and moving to different schools each year. Kids tell me life feels like an uphill battle, so just getting out of bed in the morning becomes an act of courage. Grit looks like having most adults judge you as stupid and incorrigible yet retaining your hopes and dreams and not giving up. It entails managing daily hardships and negotiating systemic roadblocks all along the way.
I’ve always encouraged people to be kind to every child because every child is facing some kind of adversity. Up to 75% of kids are exposed to at least one adverse experience such as physical or emotional or sexual abuse, a parent with mental illness, bullying, domestic violence, or loss of a parent through divorce, death, or incarceration. A 2000 study by Mark Seery found that people who had experienced at least some adversity were both more successful and more satisfied with their lives vs. people who experienced extremely high or very low levels of hardship. According to one study, children who hear stories about how family members and ancestors overcame obstacles are more resilient in the face of future challenges.
Despite the hardships disadvantaged youth experience, or perhaps because of them, grit can be developed just as well as their more advantaged peers. We would do well to look for the many ways these kids exemplify resilience and courage. They so need to be seen as competent, capable, valuable people instead of being judged in negative ways. These kids just demonstrate different ways of being gritty.