How Adults Affects Young Children’s Persistence

Raising children with persistence. This is a topic that has been very close to my heart since G1 was little. Whether you want to refer to it as persistence, mental toughness, grit, or a growth mindset, I think it all sort of boils down to the same thing.

Grit is a “firmness of mind or spirit; unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger”.

Melbourne 2019

In all my past research on this topic, I have looked deep into the sort of things our children can do to help develop that internal toughness. Even though I know the value of a good role model (“monkey see, monkey do”), I’ve never really covered this aspect in quite as much detail.

A new study, recently published in the journal “Child Development” examines how parents’ actions, successes, failures and words can affect a young child’s persistence. The findings provide some terrific insights all parents should be aware of. Here are the details…

Study: Adults’ Actions, Successes, Failures, and Words Affect Young Children’s Persistence

Children’s persistence in the face of challenges is key to learning and academic success. However, we know little about how parents and educators can help foster persistent behavior in children before they begin formal schooling. A new U.S. study looked at the interactions of preschool-
age children with adults to determine how they affected the children’s persistence. It found that the efforts adults put into their actions, successes and failures, and words affected children’s persistent behavior to differing degrees.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It appears in Child Development, a journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

“Our work shows that young children pay attention to the successes and failures of the adults around them and, reasonably, don’t persist long at tasks that adults themselves fail to achieve. However, we found that when adults could complete a task successfully, speaking about the value of the effort and letting children see the hard work that went into achieving the goal, it encouraged persistence in children who were watching.”

Julia A. Leonard, MindCore postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, lead researcher.

The Method

Researchers examined how the persistence of 520 children ages 4 and 5 years was affected by their observations of adults’ actions (whether they put a lot of or a little effort into an action) and the outcomes of those actions (whether the adults succeeded or failed in their efforts). The children were from a range of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

The study also looked at how persistence was affected by adults’ words. Did they set expectations for the children’s attempts at a task that was designed to be impossible to complete?

For example, adults told the children, “This will be hard.” They gave pep talks by saying something like, “You can do this.” They offered value statements such as, “Trying hard is important.” There was also the condition in which adults did not say anything about children’s expectations. Persistence was measured by how hard the children chose to work at the same task attempted by the adults, which was difficult and new to the children.

Children heard adults’ comments with the following conditions:

  • without seeing an adult demonstrate the tasks
  • after seeing an adult demonstrate either high or low effort at the task, then succeed or fail.

Study Findings

The study found:

  • Children tried harder after they saw adults succeed than after they saw them fail at a task.
  • Adults’ efforts affected children’s persistence, but only when the adults succeeded at their task.
  • Children’s persistence was highest when adults exerted effort at their task, succeeded, and talked about the value of making that effort.

According to the authors, these findings show that young children are attentively watching the adults around them. Young children are actively learning from adults’ words, efforts, and outcomes how hard they themselves should try at tasks. The study suggests that to encourage children’s persistence, adults should show children how hard work leads to success. Adults should do this by demonstrating with their own actions and by speaking about the value of effort.

“Our study suggests that children are rational learners—they pay attention first and foremost to whether adults succeed at their goals. But when adults succeed, children are also watching how hard adults try and what adults say about the value of effort.”

Laura Schulz, professor of cognitive science at MIT, study co-author.

This study was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Center for Minds, Brains, and Machines.

How We Affect Our Children

We all want our children to be persistent in the face of challenges. Figuring out how we help them develop that persistence is not always so straightforward.

In the past, I have made the mistake of focusing too much on words and not enough on action. I have been the cheerleader but not really a role model. While I may have done things that have demonstrated persistence, I have never done them in front of my children. I have never given them opportunity to observe me in the struggle as I fought to succeed. I have said the words without the actions.

My children are well passed the ages of 4 and 5 years old. It may be a case of too little to late. Well, it can’t hurt to start trying now that we know more about what works best.

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Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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