per·se·ver·ance [pur-suh-veer-uhns] noun
steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.
Like most aspects of human development, the development of this trait is a fluid process that will grow over time. It will mature with the child – and wax and wane throughout life as circumstances and outlooks shift. As an adult, you’ve experienced this countless times, whether you’re a glass half-empty or glass half-full kind of soul.
But children innately possess an ability to persist. It’s how they learn to make sense of their world. Just as a 9 month old will knock a cup off a high chair, only to delight in repeating it once the adult places it back on the tray, children try and try again to learn the cause and effect of their world. Over time, that propensity to persist can either remain steadfast or diminish. It can thrive with a growth mindset (in a Carol Dweck-ian-kinda way) and supportive and loving relationships. It can whither away unintentionally by adults who fix everything, praise innate talents relentlessly, or don’t expect effort from a child.
Time and time again, research has shown that letting children complete tasks they are capable of – or nearly capable of - on their own, giving space to struggle with and solve problems, and to learn the benefits of effort, yields growth on many levels. It can be hard to witness, without judgment, worry or interference.
But there’s encouragement in the research behind letting our kids develop the skills (“grit” being the term d’jour) to persevere.
- the work of Diana Baumrind identifying parenting styles
- the famous marshmallow test originally performed by Dr. Walter Mischel at Stanford
- Carol Dweck’s ground-breaking work on the value of a growth mindset
- the work of Angela Duckworth TEDx Blue talk on grit
- Paul Tough’s recent book, How Children Succeed which highlight research and anecdotes that shed new light on how children identify their passions and find success
Each of these studies point to the long-term value of teaching our kids to persevere in the face of challenge. In a society that values “success” over actual learning, it can be hard to let children persist without stepping in to help them negotiate these uncharted paths. Letting our kids struggle is not desirable. Further, “success” measured by scores or numbers or checking the boxes, is not always connected to the effort and process of learning something new (about content, relationships, life, or yourself).
No parent wants to see their child struggle or fail, but as we all know, that is part of life. It’s up to us to prepare our kids for the ups and downs of life by giving them the tools to navigate their own path so they can define their own success. If we constantly step in to fix things up or coach our children through difficulty processes or decisions, it’s mighty hard for them to develop the skills necessary to invoke those same skills in our absence. That’s not to say being supportive and encouraging doesn’t have a place.
So how can you to be supportive without engaging in what Madeline Levine terms “over-parenting”?
1. Listen Simply listening to a child weigh options or express frustration shows you are empathetic and care about the challenge.
2. Inquire Ask open-ended questions such as:
“How would that make you feel? What could you do? What about….? What don’t you need to worry/focus/attend to now? What’s the worst that could happen? What do you want to see happen?”
3. Encourage and acknowledge Offer observations and encouragement, not praise, your child’s efforts to date.
“It sounds like this is important to you and that you’re committed to fixing the conflict with Lisa. You’ve spent a long time on that math homework tonight. You’re working hard to makes sure all of your toys are picked up each evening.”
4. Suggest (without judgement) In the absence of any real physical or psychological risk, set aside your personal preferences or agenda so you are familiar with your child’s goal. Offer suggestions that are free of your own opinion.
“So what else could you do to make sure your paper is the best it can be by the due date? Would it help to have someone read it over? What did you do last time that worked when you studied for your spelling test?”
5. Bring clarity If a child isn’t particularly invested in completing a task (around the house, school-related), consider where the child is developmentally, and offer some coaching. Younger children have difficulty taking the perspective of another or in seeing the ramifications of “if/then.” In the most succinct, matter-of-fact way, explain the expectations and consequences, and reiterate that you are here to support, not do the task. And while you’re working on clarity, take some time to clarify your own goals as a parent, a life-long learner and for your children. Let those drive your level of encouragement and support of your children.
6. Lend perspective It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, thinking that this one task or accomplishment is a defining factor in your very being or your future. Remind (often if necessary) your child that the successful or unsuccessful completion of one task does not define him or her and that every one of us has things which we can tackle with ease and with effort, but all in our unique way. Winning a soccer game, acing a spelling test, getting a B on a paper that was planned and prepared with care and thought, or getting a place in the chorus and not the lead are all singular events that add to the rich experience of each person’s life. Even when effort falls short of the best-case-scenario outcome, there is something to be learned.
Need other ideas for how to foster perseverance? Read any of these: