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Babies are the most determined learners. Their survival depends on their ability to learn. Even in the face of persistent failure, they pick themselves up and try again and again until they achieve mastery. Whether it is learning to walk, talk, or grab an out-of-reach object, if they want something, they go for it. As adults, we can learn a lot from their determination.
They build memories of the joy and satisfaction of success and the discomfort and frustration, of expended effort that was not quickly rewarded with success. With their acquired knowledge and increased prowess, their memory understanding of how failure “feels” also increases. The brain has a decided preference for pain avoidance and pleasure-seeking. So, their unflappable, dogged determination eventually weakens and is replaced with a decision to stop trying earlier, to give up, to see things as “too hard.”
How can we as parents nurture their willingness to persist even in the face of failure or minimal success and help override the inclination to avoid the pain of failure by giving up—or even by not trying in the first place?
Set a Good Example
The most obvious strategy is to model persistence and resilience in our own actions. We can let our kids see us moving through the process of learning. We can allow them to see us struggle, to unmask our own cycling through failure and continued attempts. Let them see our persistence. Share our own inner mental wrestling matches so our kids can see that we too have to defeat thoughts that tell us:
It’s too hard or I’m too tired or
I will never be able to do this or
I will just let someone else do it because it is easy for them.
When observing our children’s efforts—and our own—remember that mastery takes time. Expertise comes through practice. Failure is essential. Failure builds a staircase to mastery and knowledge. Instead of commenting that their effort was “wrong” describe it as not having worked. Help them to appreciate the distinction between right/wrong thinking and working/not working.
Encourage a Growth Mindset
Ask questions like:
What else could you try?
What could you do differently?
What might happen if you broke it down into smaller steps?
Children thrive on focused parental attention and validation. When commenting on their attempts, avoid saying things like You’re so smart. Instead, mention how hard they worked. Nurturing the ability to try is far more important than telling them they are smart. Over-emphasizing their being smart can backfire. Kids can fall into a pattern of not trying because they inaccurately infer that means everything should be easy, that trying should not be necessary.
Success almost always takes time and persistence. Notice and affirm effort over achievement. Being able to persist through the learning process until success occurs builds resilience and is more important than quick results. When our comments connect to our family values, they are doubly powerful.
Wow, I can see you are still trying! In this family, we think trying is really important.
Appreciate the joy of the Journey
We experience most of life as a journey from one experience to the next. If we hyper-focus on the destination or goal achievement, we miss the joy of the present moment, the thrill and joy of incremental success, and the satisfaction of learning for its own sake. This registers as a subtle yet persistent sense of dissatisfaction, lack of contentment, and inadequacy. This mindset is not healthy for our kids or ourselves.
Be Intentional and Adoption Attuned
These strategies are not complicated or difficult, yet they are not usually the typical default response of most parents. Remembering to use these new approaches requires intention, practice, and persistence. We get to model our own learning process for our children to see, then follow and internalize our example.
Which of these suggested steps come easily for you? How can you make them even more instinctual and automatic? Which of the steps do you find harder to follow? How will you begin to internalize them?
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