"You can do it!" "Don't give up!" "Keep going!"
What parent hasn't shouted these time-tested words of encouragement as her child tries to take his first steps, learn to use the potty, or read on his own? Kids confront challenges, big and small, every day. And a growing body of research suggests that perseverance, the ability to stick with tough tasks, may even trump innate ability in predicting how successful kids will be in life. In a series of landmark studies involving elite performers across diverse fields such as music, sports, and medicine, K. Anders Ericsson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Florida State University, in Tallahassee, found that individual achievement was more closely linked to drive, discipline, and dedication than to talent. But what if you happen to be raising a child who's easily frustrated -- like my 4-year-old son, Benjamin, who whines, "No, I can't!" whenever I ask him to dress himself in the morning or to write his name? While temperament makes a difference, all children can be taught to push themselves beyond where they thought they could go. Read on for guidelines that will change "I give up!" into "I did it!"
I dole out kudos to my three children the way I do tissues for runny noses -- often and abundantly ("Great job!" "You're so smart!"). I want them to believe that they can do anything they set their mind to. But my constant ego-boosting may have the opposite effect: stifling their self-confidence and motivation and turning them into praise addicts who need constant affirmation.
In her seminal research on motivation, Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Stanford University and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, discovered that children who are commended for their results ("What a beautiful picture") or ability ("You're so good at this!") tend to fall apart when things suddenly don't come easily. However, kids who are stroked for their effort ("You must have worked really hard at that!") are much more likely to persevere, because they equate achievement with hard work, Dr. Dweck says.
For an over-praiser like me, these findings helped me realize I could be giving my kids more positive reinforcement. Instead of saying, "You're an amazing artist" every time my daughter, Livia, 4, shows me her latest masterpiece, I should say something like, "I can see you took a lot of care with that drawing." And rather than complimenting my 7-year-old son, Jacob, on what a great basketball player he is, I would motivate him more by pointing out, "All that practice has made you so much better at dribbling."
If you want your kids to stick with a difficult task (such as learning to ice-skate or cleaning their room), give them a game plan. "When you show a child how to do something step by step, it's a lot less intimidating for him," says Jim Taylor, Ph.D., author of Your Children Are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You. If he's melting down over a tricky puzzle, you might say, "Let's find all the corners," followed by, "Okay, now we can pick out all the edges," and then, "If we can sort the pieces by color, we can fill in from the sides."
Amy Anderson, of Loomis, California, employs a similar strategy -- albeit with a twist -- with her daughters, Natalie, 9, and Delaney, 7, whom she homeschools. "I draw a game board and fill in the squares with different ways to practice a new skill," she says. One recent contest led her girls through all the steps required to master jumping rope (such as "watch Mom jump," "jump in slow motion," and "practice for three minutes"). Natalie and Delaney took turns moving one space at a time and following the commands until they reached the finish line (which read, "I can jump rope now!"). Anderson has used the same approach to teach her girls about everything from counting ("Hop on one foot ten times") to the ABCs ("Draw a picture of something that starts with the letter A") and has found it especially helpful for her older daughter. "Natalie has a tendency to get very frustrated," Anderson explains, "but when I make each part look manageable, she's much more relaxed."
The fear of falling short prevents many kids from giving their all in the first place. So you should explain to your child that setbacks are an essential part of the learning process. When Dr. Taylor's kids, Catie, 6, and Gracie, 4, face hurdles, such as learning to ski or trying to spell simple words, he tells them that the most important thing is to keep plugging away, and that if they do that they'll get there eventually. He repeats this mantra to them: "The only failure is not trying."
Books offer another great opportunity to reinforce the concept of "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Children's literature is filled with inspiring examples of underdogs who ultimately prevail, from classics like The Little Engine That Could to Clorinda, about a cow who leaves the farm determined to become a ballerina.
Or you can copy Kristen Sze's idea. Tired of watching her 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son shy away from competitive activities because they feared losing, the San Francisco mom made games -- from checkers to soccer -- a mandatory part of their daily routine. "We called it the win/lose contest of the day," explains Sze. Her six-month crash course gave the kids lots of experience with both victory and defeat, which helped lower the stakes. "The experience impressed upon them that they will face wins and losses in life, along with successes and failures. How they deal with them can help them learn and grow. And ultimately, it's not whether they are the best but whether they did their own personal best that's most important."
More than two thirds of all preschoolers develop a consuming interest, whether it's princesses, animals, dinosaurs, pirates, or something else entirely. These hobbies, though endearing and adorable at first, can start to seem obsessive, which may tempt you to try to tone them down or steer your kids toward something else. Don't. Having a passion fuels your child's curiosity for learning.
Caren Cohen recalls when her 8-year-old daughter transformed from a disinterested reader to a flourishing bookworm within a matter of months. The key was finding the right subject matter. "We discovered Percy Jackson & The Olympians, a modern-day take on Greek mythology, and her enthusiasm for reading suddenly took off," says the Philadelphia mom.
You can help your child discover a new passion by exposing her to a variety of different experiences and by taking her to visit science museums, libraries, zoos, and historic places. "When she shows interest and wants to jump into something, help her make it happen," says David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us: New Insights Into Genetics, Talent, and IQ. Just be sure you're following your child's lead and not your own desires for her.
The beauty of perseverance is that kids who are able to bear down in one realm -- whether it's Lego-building or dancing -- tend to carry the same drive and determination to other pursuits. "The principle of not giving up is very transferable," says Shenk. Plus, the confidence a child gains from mastering one thing (say, tennis) tends to carry over to other areas (such as schoolwork).
The next time your kid is ready to wave the white flag, bring up his past triumphs. When her son, Max, 8, becomes frustrated by his mistakes while practicing guitar, Jane Bonenberger, of Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, reminds him about the long hours it took for him to become a good baseball hitter. "We talk about his first season, when he couldn't hit at all, compared with now, when he's smacking the ball and loving it."
As with most values you hope to instill in your kids, what you do means more than what you say. So let them see you struggle a little. "When something goes wrong in your life, your instinct may be to shield them, but you should do the opposite," says Shenk. After a recent professional setback, he talked to Lucy, 14, and Henry, 8, about it. "I said I was upset, but I wasn't going to give up," he recalls. An accomplished musician, Shenk also practices in front of his children (both of whom play instruments) so they can see the hard work involved in mastering a new piece. After all, you can lecture all day about being persistent, but nothing is more powerful than showing a child what it truly means.
These famous sayings may inspire your child to hang in there.
"It's not that I'm so smart; it's just that I stay with problems longer." --Albert Einstein
"When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on." --Franklin D. Roosevelt
"It always seems impossible until it's done." --Nelson Mandela
"Defeat is simply a signal to press onward." --Helen Keller
"It's a funny thing. The more I practice the luckier I get." --Arnold Palmer
"I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that did not work." --Thomas Edison
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Parents magazine.