As parents, we witness our kids struggle to master new tasks at all different ages and stages. Whether it’s zipping their coat, tying their shoes, perfecting lowercase letters, or learning how to play piano, their young lives are filled with occasions where it will feel easier to just give up.
But research has found that one of the strongest predictors of a child’s success in later life is their ability to persevere. As child psychologist Michele Borba writes for CNBC, “I’ve found that perseverance is the No. 1 soft skill that sets kids who are highly motivated apart from those who give up easily.” Likewise, Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and bestselling author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, has found in her research of students who have demonstrated long-term academic and life success, “that a combination of grit and self-control, reliance, and ambition were the most reliable predictors of a positive outcome, rather than intelligence.” Here’s how you can teach it to your kids.
Praise effort, not results
According to research conducted by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, kids are less likely to persevere when they are praised for innate intelligence (“You’re so smart!”) compared to when they’re praised for their efforts and participation (“You worked so hard!” and “You were so determined to finish this”). Attach praise to your child’s hard work and dedication, rather than their results, or a trait they cannot change, such as their IQ. (Constant praise for their intelligence leads to greater fear of failure, more risk aversion, and a vested interest in only performing tasks that won’t compromise the validation they receive for being “smart.”)
Foster a growth mindset
According to Dweck, a growth mindset is one in which children understand that their talents and abilities are not fixed—rather they can be developed through hard work, practice, and persistence. (This is as opposed to a “fixed mindset,” in which children believe they were born with, and are limited by, a certain fixed amount of intelligence or talent.) When we foster a growth mindset for our kids by modeling it ourselves and encouraging them to persist in the face of challenges, they will be more likely to weather setbacks and forge ahead. They will grow to expect hard work and mistakes as be part of the process, rather than a sign they should give up.
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Teach by example (including the value of mistakes)
We all benefit from hearing—and seeing—that we’re not alone. Let your kids watch you struggle with a new task or a challenging project and be honest about your missteps and mistakes; let them see you do things “wrong.” Communicate that mistakes are growth and learning opportunities, so they can understand that resilience pays off and failure is not a permanent condition. Share stories of yourself or famous athletes, inventors, artists, or historical figures who didn’t reach their goals on the first (or 10th try) but kept pursuing it and eventually experienced success.
Find “just right” challenges
While it’s important for kids to excel at certain things, they also need to pursue tasks that are slightly above their skill level. The activities your child engages in should be a mix of things that come easily to them, and those that are moderately challenging—just out of their comfort zones. Be mindful of setting expectations that are neither too high (and thus anxiety-inducing and nearly unattainable) or too low (leading to boredom).
Teach positive self-talk
Kids—and let’s face it, many adults—can devolve easily into negative self-talk when they don’t get things right the first time. If your child is hard on themselves, often blurting things like, “I can’t do it!” or “I don’t know anything,” teach them a positive replacement phrase they can use when frustrated. (Barbo calls this a “stick-to-it statement.”) Things like, “It’s OK to make mistakes,” “Things don’t have to be perfect,” and “I’ll get better with practice.” Keep it short, easy to remember, and have them repeat it out loud when frustrated. (They may grumble and resist—but over time, may grow to adopt it.)
Let them get frustrated
Speaking of frustration…let your kids experience it. Barbo writes that it is one of her top parenting rules is, “Never do something for your children that they can do on their own.” While this isn’t always possible (sometimes you just need to get out the door), it’s a valuable reminder not to save them at the first sign of distress. Some struggle is important for children’s learning, and swooping in to complete or fix tasks for them teaches them dependence on you, rather than self-sufficiency. While the goal is not to force our kids to pursue activities they hate long-term, there is nothing wrong with a little short-term difficulty. As VeryWellFamily put it, “Don’t be afraid of your child’s feelings of sadness or frustration; this is how they develop resilience.”
Celebrate small successes
While some amount of failure is inevitable and healthy, a child faced with repeated failure will struggle to persevere. Find small wins to celebrate with your child to build their confidence and morale. Whether it’s putting a shoe on the correct foot, keeping their homework legible, or remembering to fill in their reading log without being prompted, point out and praise minor successes wherever you can.
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