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Teaching tykes persistence

How to help your children stick with it (no matter what).

By Leslie Crawford

Stomping out of the swimming pool because learning to swim is too scary. Throwing the crayon down because writing is too hard. These are the times that try parents' souls — those tearful and tempestuous moments when kids simply give up.

If these episodes are hard for parents to witness, consider how our children feel. They are trying something new and difficult and — in their minds — failing. In truth, this is an ideal teachable moment, when we can help our children understand that, no matter how new or difficult, challenges are achieved through patience, practice, and effort.

“Perseverance, or work ethic, is one of the most highly correlated traits of success,” says child educational consultant Michele Borba, the author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. Persistence is something children need to succeed in school and life. A 2007 paper from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found the ability to persevere may be as essential as talent or IQ to succeed. The good news? Persistence is a trait that can be taught and learned. It’s just a matter of knowing how to help your children — and not giving up on them when they give up on themselves.

Talk about it

Young kids benefit from regularly hearing about persistence. So teach them different ways to talk about problem-solving: “I won’t quit,” “I can do it,” and “It’s always hardest the first time, but it will get easier.” Borba also suggests coming up with a household “stick with it” mantra, explaining that families that maintain an overall attitude of “We can do it” tend to face obstacles and mistakes with grace and ingenuity. Some favorites: “Mistakes don’t get us down” and “The family that doesn’t quit!” Finally, tell stories either from your own life or read to your child about succeeding despite the obstacles. The all-time “I can do it” early-reader classic? The Little Engine That Could.

Resist rescuing

When we see our kids having a hard time because they aren’t succeeding, it’s tempting to jump in to make it all better. But remember: We learn by trial and error. By giving kids a chance to fail, we also give them the pleasure of succeeding on their own. The next time your children have a problem and ask you to solve it, don’t. Instead, sit down and ask them to think of a solution. This gives your kids time to cool down and teaches valuable problem-solving skills. And while it’s tempting, when playing games — be it Candy Land or red light, green light — refrain from letting children win just because they’ll be unhappy if they don’t. Playing fair and square teaches the important life lesson that, in games as in life, sometimes you’re going to fail before you win.

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.

Comments from readers

"This article reinforces parenting ideas and skills on perserverence, stick-tuitiveness and how not to rescue your child. Thank you for sending me this article. I will definately apply these skills with my five year old son and work on giving positive pep talks when he wants to quit and gives up too easily on something he might just be trying out, but gets frustrated with. I like the idea of putting him in a story where he is the hero, and reminding him of times he has tried something and succeeded at it, though it wasn't easy"
"It is so amazing how we, as a society, find that the best practices for developing character, integrity, and generally good citizens, is by getting back to what was demonstrated in everyday life by parents, teachers, adults of earlier generations. This is not to say we do not still have generative individuals with us-- watch dogs of our moral and intellectual trends, but as the discussion implies, it seems necessary these days to ramp up the energy and resources in order to get these very basic life principles to our contemporary care givers, and as a natural consequence, our children. Simply put, children do learn by example; if you want your children to internalize a characteristic or pattern, demonstrate that pattern, on a regular basis,with integrity, and you will have achieved your objective. This is not a complex cognitive revelation. Persistence, conviction and a true moral compass is what brought us America."