When Adam was just a baby, I remember watching him play in his carseat, trying his hardest to reach the dangling toy above his head. While I got ready for work, he kept at it for more than 10 minutes. Later that day, working with a middle school student who seemed to give up before he even tried, I thought back to Adam. He spent more time trying to solve his problem (catch the toy) than most of my students would have.
I think some children are born with more will-power and perseverance than others. Just like some are born with faster developing gross motor skills (not mine!) or a more laid-back disposition. But a fear of failure or poor attitude can cause a child to lose the will to succeed that they may have been born with.
How do we encourage perseverance? My experience with my students (and my own boys) helped me come up with a few simple steps to encourage children to keep on trying.
Simple Steps to Encourage Children to Keep Trying
1. Model perseverance. I’m a firm believer in modeling the behavior you want your children to replicate. When they see you working hard to solve a problem or fix something, you show them that perseverance is important to you.
2. Talk about it! Tell your children about a time you had to work hard to learn a new skill or find the solution to a problem. If you are actively modeling perseverance, describe what you’re doing. “Ugh. I tried this and I tried that and the toilet still won’t flush right! I’m going to keep trying though – I want to fix this!”
3. Emphasize a growth mindset. There are two “mindsets” according to psychologist Carol Dweck. (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck) A person with a fixed mindset believes that they are born with certain skills and that is their lot in life. A person with a growth mindset believes they can develop skills through practice and learning. Practice may not make perfect, but it DOES make you better. Look for examples of this in your child’s life and point it out. “Wow, Adam! At Christmas, you couldn’t read nearly as many words as you can now! I can tell you’ve been practicing a lot at school.”
4. Don’t push them too hard. I know, this seems backwards, right? If we want our kids to try hard, we have to encourage them to do so! That’s true, but we also have to take a second and think about whether or not the problem or activity is developmentally appropriate for them. Teachers refer to this as the “zone of proximal development.” There are things that children can do independently, and then there are things that are just outside that range – that’s the zone of proximal development. For example, I would not force my preschooler to write a whole sentence if he can not write his name legibly. A sentence is beyond his zone of proximal development. My kindergartener, on the other hand, can spell several words and knows a sentence begins with a capital and ends with a period. He could (and should) write a sentence, even if it takes awhile to do it!
5. Focus on small successes. Never punish a failure. How many times has fear of failure kept you from trying something new? My fear of looking ridiculous has kept me from participating in team sports since I was in elementary school. Maybe if I’d had a growth mindset related to sports, and someone had helped me focus on small improvements I was making (instead of calling me butterfingers every time I didn’t catch the ball) I would have tried harder and enjoyed myself more.
6. Don’t say, “This is easy.” Acknowledge when your child is doing something difficult, and then acknowledge their successes.
Always remember, your child isn’t perfect, but neither are you. And sometimes, there are situations that call for your child to “give up.” But those situations should be the exception, not the rule. Encourage a growth mindset and perseverance, and someday, your children (or their spouses or employers) will thank you.