Just like adults, children sometimes fail. And when they do, parents too often do not react. They figure that failure is a part of life—that it teaches an important lesson. But that may not actually be the case. While tough love worked fine for parents when they were children, we know more now about child psychology. And we have a better understanding of what methods truly help children learn from failure.
When a child fails, think of two goals. The first is comfort. Parents need to convey how much they care and can be relied upon. This may seem a little obvious, and so most parents stop there. But there is a second aim: helping children build toward future success by developing persistence.
Persistence is what drives actions such as finishing a task, pushing through frustration, putting in time and effort, or finding creative approaches to a challenging problem. The ability to keep trying early in life is linked to all sorts of favorable outcomes years later, according to research—including a greater likelihood to succeed in schools, careers and personal relationships.
There are three main strategies for encouraging persistence in your child.
The first is modeling what persistence looks like. We know that children—even infants—are sensitive to how their guardians behave. But good modeling does not just happen. It is more effective when planned and carried out with a specific goal (such as developing honesty, altruism or, yes, persistence) in mind. Parents who noticeably struggle with something, but continue to pursue the activity anyway, and repeat that pattern over time, may naturally foster persistence in a child. One way to do this at home would be for parents to engage in tasks that are slightly difficult, just enough to require extra effort. It helps if the parent narrates what he or she is trying to accomplish out loud, and talks about any new approach to the goal: “Hmm, that did not work. Let me try another way.”
When you see your child doing this themselves and devoting special effort to a task, praise them right then and there. But do not do this just for marathon-like struggles, in which the child sacrifices play time or a meal or socializing with friends. Praise even the smallest signs of effort. Some parents question whether they should jump in, interrupt and praise something the child is already doing. But quickly, clearly doing this will increase the child’s effort—which can, in turn, extend to other activities and situations they encounter in the future. In general, if you spot the child trying hard or harder than she usually does and working through tasks, praise them for what they are doing.
And if you do not see this happening, and your child is not doing something a bit difficult, you do not need to wait. You can provide opportunities for persistence. That is, try to combine modeling and praise: Work on a puzzle; try some challenge with a game or toy; or just do a chore together—anything that involves some time and effort. Then, set small and eventually larger goals. Depending on how it is going, have the child do more and more of the task while you keep him or her company. If that is too much, and you continue to take turns, that is fine. However, your chosen activity should be fun or, at the very least, a time free of reprimands or harsh corrections. They should, in the end, enjoy it.
Some people are more naturally persistent than others. Without training, some people are excellent, others less so. And most of us? Probably somewhere in the middle. But where we start is not the same as where we end up. Repeated practice can teach children that the process is important — sometimes just as important as the goal.
BY ALAN KAZDIN - Kazdin is Sterling Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University and director of the Yale Parenting Center; he is a former President of the American Psychological Association and teaches a course open to the public on Coursera: Everyday Parenting: The ABCs of Child Rearing.