Dina L. Relles

writer. editor. curious + common.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grit lately. I’m not the only one.

What Is Grit?

Angela Duckworth, an Associate Professor in Penn’s Psychology Department, focuses her professional research on studying the character traits that contribute to doing well in school and life. She defines “grit” as a passion and perseverance for long-term goals, stamina. “Living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Being faced with a challenge, being undeterred. Follow-through.

Through researching children and adults in different challenging settings, Duckworth and others have found that grit, more than talent or IQ, is the greatest predictor of success.

So how do you cultivate this magical “grit”? Duckworth and her colleagues concede that it’s still largely a mystery. Permit me a few (admittedly anecdotal, unscientific) thoughts on the topic…

City Life

It is my humble hope that raising my children in the city during their early years has fostered a certain amount of perseverance and character.

My sons learned to ride their bikes on the cracked, uneven pavement of city streets. They must stop at every corner.


They make do without a backyard, but dirt mounds and side streets are spectacular stand-ins:



Here they are playing some “find the hidden penny” game they invented in the pavement cracks in front of our row house:

IMG_5514And exploring in the trunk of our car:


Often, they can be found playing with dirt in a public space:


Or using it to “paint” our front steps (ok, I wasn’t so fond of this one):


They don’t need much, and I like it that way. They’ve become inventive, resourceful. They find joy in the simple, small things; they uncover the beauty in their everyday surroundings; they are happy with what they have (most of the time).

I think city life fosters a feeling that the world doesn’t revolve around you. You see—every day, with your own eyes—just how big this wide world is, how many (different!) people inhabit it, and you learn your path must yield to others, often.

Our days are full of compromise and simplicity. Our days feel full of grit.

The Value of Waiting

The reality of our family life—many boys, often accompanied by one mom—is also conducive to character-building. My boys are learning (slowly, painfully) that their needs cannot be met immediately. My attention is almost always divided; I’m constantly triaging.

People often ask me why I don’t have more help. But I think it’s a good thing that my boys don’t have their (non-emergent) needs met RIGHT NOW. In that way, (I hope) they understand they are not the center of the world; they learn patience, independence…grit.

Summer Camp

Next week, we will head to my old summer camp…the same one that brought me some of my best memories, my dearest friends…and my husband. To this day, a simple picture of the camp’s grounds makes my heart swell.

I will be working there for a month, and the boys are coming with me.

We will trade our playroom full of toys for a field full of dirt, sticks, and stones. An expanse of earth will be our playground. A modest wooden cabin with a shared porch will be our home. The showers within are old, and often cold; open cubbies for our clothes the only furnishings—perhaps a tattered poster graces the wall, secured by thumbtacks. Dirt will become a familiar companion—creeping into our living spaces, appearing on the floors, even in our beds. Not the synthetic, grimy dirt of our city life…but earth.

We will walk everywhere. Up and down hills, over jagged rocks, in rain and sun. It’s the only way.


We will share every meal, dining “family-style” in a large cafeteria with a distinctive, perpetual smell I can’t quite place, its floors concrete, its walls lined with plaques hand-painted by once-campers. Meal times and menus are pre-set; the food served is all there is.

We will be surrounded by young and old, all cohabitating, co-parenting, commingling, connecting.

Certain comforts may be gone—rather, swapped for the far greater comfort of being surrounded by others, being part of this community, this world within a world. For a time, it will be far more about people and place than things.

This is good. Gritty.

We are going to live with less. Get out of our comfort zone and into the world. We will disconnect. And reconnect. We will look at the sky. We will see stars.


My writing routine, and my internet connection, may be compromised while we’re away. So if you don’t hear from me for a few weeks, imagine that I’m lying with my boys on the most beautiful expanse of grass overlooking a lake you’ve ever seen…and you probably won’t be too far off.


Photo credit: Joel Seltzer

And before you know it, I’ll be back…

7 thoughts on “Grit, And Where To Find It

  1. kploetz says:

    This is such a great way to live, I think, for young children (and us older folks too!). We also really try to incorporate many of these very same things—often a challenge when many around us offer their children so much, so instantly. But grit? Very important indeed. Enjoy that camp time together—sounds heavenly!

  2. I agree with you. Grit –both literal and figurative, as you pointed out–has much to offer us. Life is not one long smooth road, and it’s so important for children to understand this. Have a wonderful time away! xox

  3. I agree with you on grit as a goal, and like you my children have spent their early childhood in an urban environment . We live in a row house without a yard and spend a lot of time walking streets, playing in public parks, etc. I like it. Camp sounds absolutely magical and I look forward to hearing about it! xox

  4. Nina Badzin says:

    Such a worthy goal and it’s really important to me too! Your time aways sounds just right. Take me with you?

  5. rudrip says:

    Grit is essential – for tenacity and survival. Enjoy your time away. Looking forward to hearing about your adventures.

  6. levland says:

    You picked a great source for Grit. Duckworth is the leading expert and her findings are challenging the standard admissions matrices. I love that you connected the academic grit with boy grit. My son’s find grit everywhere and bring it inside. Have fun at camp and say hi to everyone for me!

  7. Lara says:

    This, these words right here, is exactly why my heart yearns for the city. Grit. Living with less in a way, learning to ride on cracked pavement through streets that display just how big and grand and gritty a world we’re in and a part of. Also, that “find the hidden penny” picture? You need to frame that one. Not only is it gorgeous, but it depicts childhood in the city so exquisitely. Hope you’re enjoying your time away!

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