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Parenting in Grad School: Success with Passion and Grit

GradHacker Parenting Week continues with an essay on teaching kids about passion and grit.

October 20, 2014

Jennifer D. Moss is a proud mom and a doctoral candidate in Educational Psychology at Purdue University. She studies self-determination theory and motivation in education. She blogs here and can be reached at moss16@purdue.edu.

It’s week three of the semester and I’m at home, sitting at my desk entering participant names into a database. Snip, snip, snip. That’s the sound of my eleven-year-old trimming her American Girl doll’s hair. You see, I’m at home, missing class because my daughter’s out of school today with a sore throat. Ah, the glamorous life of the graduate student/parent.

I started graduate school in 2008, nineteen years after earning my bachelor’s degree and eleven years after my first daughter was born. As a parent, I’m in the minority among graduate students—even among other grad student parents, whose children are often much younger than mine.

I’ve learned a lot while making a life as a parent in school: good babysitters are hard to find, even when you’re surrounded by undergraduates; it’s hard to spend time with your cohort when you have to pick up a Girl Scout; you can’t beat frozen pizza when the work is due and the kids are hungry. But it’s the big lessons that I’m glad my kids and I have learned together. We’ve learned the importance of passion for one’s chosen work. We’ve also learned about the value of grit.

I became a grad student because of my passion for the study of teaching and learning. I’d taught a variety of grades in a number of schools, but there were questions I couldn’t answer on my own. Why were some classrooms like Zen gardens while others like war zones? Why did rewards for good behavior or good work often backfire? These questions ignite my passion. They are the reason I am more energized when I come home from work than when I left in the morning.

I believe that one key to being a successful grad student/parent is sharing your passion with your children. I talk with mine about my research, why it’s so important, and what it might mean for teachers and students. It helps that my field is something that they are familiar with, but we all have a big-picture reason for why we do what we do. Some of us study nanotechnology to deliver better medicines. Some of us study history to better know the past and guide us to a brighter future. If our kids understand our passions, they might better understand our sacrifices. I quit a good-paying job as a special education teacher in order to return to school full-time. Never once have my girls questioned this. They didn’t like moving, but they see my studies as “something Mom needs to do.” They speak the language of my chosen discipline well enough that they have even questioned me about whether I’m affording them enough autonomy support in my parenting, a key motivational construct. Usually, I’m proud of them for understanding the concept, rather than annoyed at them for being sassy.

But passion alone is not enough. There is another quality you must possess to succeed. In the vernacular of self-determination theory, it’s known as “identified regulation.” If you can identify why the task is important to you, you can find the discipline to make it through the tough times—the endless days of slogging through literature reviews and lab experiments. Speaker and author Angela Duckworth calls it grit, and I think that name is perfect. Grit is what sends you back to the lab when the last three batches of experiments have failed. It’s what helps you rewrite your proposal for the fourth time. These experiences are not fun, but they are necessary. Those with grit will persevere, and those without grit go home. Grit moves you along the path when the going gets tough.

Kids need grit. And they need to see other people use grit and determination to get through the challenges that arise along our chosen paths. If you’re in graduate school and you have kids, you’re thinking to yourself, “I got this!” And, chances are you do. Share it with your kids. My girls see me digging deep, scraping the bottom of the motivation barrel when I’m up against a deadline. I have skipped many fun Friday nights because I promised myself that I would finish a paper or my share of a collaboration before Saturday. I always tell the girls that I’d rather be with them, but that I have some important work to finish. I don’t do it every day, or every Friday night. But when it’s needed, the girls have seen me work hard, work smart, and just plain old work.

So, as an education researcher, how do I know this is working? How do I measure the outcomes? Well, the sample size is small, but my kids are my first case studies, and I am their role model. They watch me follow my passion with grit and determination. I hope I encourage them to do the same. People told me when I quit my job to finish my PhD that I was being a good role model for my kids. I’m not sure I understood then, but now, I do. I look around my family and I see what passion and grit can yield. My older daughter, Liza, is a senior at Interlochen Arts Academy, in Michigan, where she’s been a boarding student since freshman year. It’s a competitive school that students audition to attend from around the world. She studies opera and carries a full academic load, with a grade point average of 3.96. My younger daughter, Annie, is a sixth grader and she just earned her brown belt in tae-kwon-do. My husband is about to publish his third mystery novel.

Passion and grit together are a winning combination. They can get you through some hard times with some great results. And, like most things in life, they improve when they are shared. If you have kids, don’t be afraid to talk about your passion and let them see your grit. Your excitement and determination might just rub off on some very important people.

[Picture of gritstone via Wikipedia and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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