Our bravest and best lessons are not learned through success, but through misadventure.
- Amos Bronson Alcott
“The driveway is too bumpy.” “I hate wearing bike helmets!” and “I don’t want to ride with training wheels” are all of the “reasons” my son vehemently cites for not learning to ride a bike when his friends take off at top speed on theirs. This concerns me not because riding a bike without training wheels is so crucial but because learning requires practice and persistence. At times, my son wants to demonstrate mastery before he’s really tried. He gives up quickly, frustrated and embarrassed. A not-so-closet perfectionist myself, I worry that I might be modeling competence but leaving out the hard journey I took to get there. This is the same boy, however, who will dig in his heels and search for a single Lego piece until it is found, no matter how long it takes. “Don’t give up, Mom! I will never give up!” he asserts as focused and determined as any predator stalking his prey. His sense of agency, or will power, at times, astounds me. So I must ask, what helps a child persist toward a goal? What promotes, as researchers are now calling it, “grit”? Why are children doggedly determined in some pursuits and not in others? And how can a parent cultivate that force when it comes to the highest learning priorities?
Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset, writes that it’s all about our attitudes toward a challenge, both your thoughts and feelings.1 Some children will approach a difficult puzzle with excitement and as the difficulty increases, so too does their involvement and motivation to figure it out. Dweck refers to this as a “growth mindset.” The learner believes that with time and effort, she can achieve anything. Other children will take one look at a difficult puzzle and make the decision that it’s unconquerable and not worth the effort. Dweck refers to this attitude as a “fixed mindset.” Circumstances outside of my control or just the way I am and will always be determine whether I can meet a challenge or not. Though I suspect interest level in the challenge at hand makes a significant contribution to a child’s motivation to work hard on it, there are attitudes that either support digging in or giving up. The great news is that these thoughts and feelings related to how a child approaches a challenge can be learned, developed and changed over time. So how can parents support a growth mindset? How can they promote perseverance when a challenge only gets tougher?
Promote an “I can.” belief. Negative self-talk such as “There’s no way I can do that.” can prevent a child or an adult from working toward a goal. There may be an internal dialogue that your child is privy to and you are not. So ask. “How are you feeling about this challenge?” Also let them know that you are certain they can master it. Try to break down practice into the smallest steps possible and recognize the accomplishment of each small step. Follow each success with “See — you can.”
Notice effort. Recognize the process over the product. We tend to be product-oriented at school, in our work and in our daily lives. It’s easy to point to an end product and evaluate it. And that’s just what your child is afraid of. So downplay the final product. Focus your comments more on the effort they engage in and the process they are taking to reach their goal. “I notice you returned to your paper each night this week. You are really working hard.”
Model persistence and share others success stories. As adults, we may tend to share our triumphs and the “happy endings” of long-fought stories, but be aware that sharing your set-backs along the way is just as important. Share other success stories too of people who failed or made mistakes and still persevered. Sports offers a vast array of examples in this area. My baseball fan husband reminds E that even professional batters strike out more than they hit.
Talk about the problem as temporary. The “fixed” mindset sees problems as permanent fixtures and out of their control. The “growth” mindset views challenges as passing issues that they can address and change. Focus on logical next steps your child can take.
Find multiple ways to practice – and make it fun. Practice can be difficult when a child feels like he’s being watched. Remove the audience even if its siblings. Give him the time and space to try whatever it is judgement-free. If you can make a game out of practicing and incorporate fun, you will help provide motivation to engage in the activity.
Build on a sense of agency. All children have a desire for autonomy and competence. If your child has ever adamantly opposed your directions, take that as a sign she has a healthy sense of agency. Though not always ready to make particular choices, children – just as adults – have the desire to do things on their own – and on their own terms. Remind your child of the times she dug in and wouldn’t give up. Perhaps she wanted blueberry muffins for a snack and was willing to do the hard work of helping make them, waiting for them to bake and cleaning up afterward. Those stories can be told to reinforce the fact that she has the strength and desire to persist if she makes up her mind that she’s going to do something.
Visualize success. Visualization can be a powerful tool for achieving a goal. In a quiet time, you can facilitate a visualization by closing eyes and asking what life would look like, feel like and be like if she achieved her goal. The more specific she can get, the more details she will uncover that can serve as ingredients for her success.
Cultivate gratefulness. Appreciation of what we have in life – our relationships, our homes, the food we eat, the toys we play with – can help promote optimism in every aspect of life. Find a regular time each day to discuss what you are grateful for and see how it affects your children’s attitudes. E and I share “happy thoughts” each night before bedtime as a way to note all of the events that occurred and people we encountered that we appreciated.
Assemble a temporary goal support group. If a particular learning goal is a sensitive issue, you may have to play “covert ops” on this one. Inform people in your child’s life privately (when your son is not around) about his goal. Ask if there are ways they might positively encourage practice or provide inspiration. Grandparents can be particularly skilled at offering opportunities to practice in the guise of fun.
And what if your child has a frustration tantrum?
Take a break. If your child is highly frustrated or upset about not achieving her goal, take a break. Cool down. Get away from the project. Exercise. Get fresh air. A highly emotional child is not going to bring her full mental abilities to the task if she is upset. Trying to stick with it in a time of high emotion can actually exacerbate the problem and lessen motivation in the future. Find time for a real break so that she can return feeling better and ready to persist.
And what if your child refuses to try when it relates to homework or learning academic content that is required for school?
Accept consequences and allow failure. As harsh as it may seem, we cannot and should not protect our children from every failure. If we learn our greatest lessons from missteps and failures, then, as parents, difficult as it may be, we must know when to step back and allow our child to experience the consequences of a decision like giving up. If it’s work for school that your child refuses to do, you can always communicate through a note or email with the teacher the situation and that you are hoping that the consequences will allow your child to fully experience what happens when they refuse to do their work.
I typically listen to jazz as I write. Today, as I wrote this article, I couldn’t help but notice the background music that was playing and took a moment to read the bio of the musician. At age nineteen, Melody Gardot, a college student studying fashion design, was riding her bike down a Philadelphia street and was blind-sided by a car and left for dead. She was hospitalized for months with head and body injuries. And while on her hospital bed, she wrote and recorded songs that served as a comfort to her. She now lives her life with hypersensitivity to light and noise and needs a cane to walk. Yet she has also released numerous albums and has become a respected vocalist. As I listened, her voice had a depth of soul that I rarely experience. This story of her persistence despite great challenges reminds me what a gift life is and what a gift being a parent is. I know my son will learn to ride a bike. And my confidence in his ability to learn will go a long way toward making it a reality. Meanwhile, I will look for moments to find joy in practicing.
Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset; The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.