Helping Your Child to Persist

By Angela Iadavaia-Cox

On yet another long afternoon at home during the coronavirus, I was trying to set up a new bath toy with my four-year old granddaughter. It was not working. She called it a “dud.” I suggested an alternative, “time for persistence.” We pretended to be scientists, attempting different ways to position five gears so that the water would rotate them. We also talked about the difference between a challenge and a dud and how difficult it can be not to give up.

I know our pretend game and conversation made an impression. A few days later, while I was scraping playdough off the floor, my granddaughter diffused my own frustration when she remarked, “It looks like it’s time for persistence.”

What if the gears had fit perfectly on the first try? We would have enjoyed a few minutes marveling at how water pressure set the wheels in motion, learned a bit of science, but what else? And what if the coronavirus never interrupted our routine of spending most of our afternoons together at the local park?

This experience seems to be a metaphor for situations that parents have encountered in the upheaval of social isolation and changing roles. It spotlighted hidden opportunities that are always right in front of us—the moments throughout the day that call for life skills* like persistence that help get us through both simple problems and hard times. If we can expand our definition of success, we might ease some inevitable frustrations while also passing on lasting gifts to our children.

Some Tips

Build on Prior Success: When confronted with a new challenge, remind your child of their past successes, whether it be learning to ride a two-wheeler or completing last year’s science project. Direct your praise to their effort. “You put in a lot of time. Remember how proud you were when your hard work paid off.”

Share Your Experiences: Tell your child about some incident in which persistence, or its lack, was a game changer for you. Talk out loud as you work through a new task. Mention when you are frustrated or making progress. Do you have trouble getting started? Do you lose steam quickly and become anxious? How do you overcome these common obstacles?

Encourage Your Child to Make a Plan: Basic organizational skills are critical. Ask your child to define their goal and the steps necessary to achieve it. Discuss as many details as you can. Come up with a realistic time table—emphasis on realistic. Break the plan into smaller steps so that your child can enjoy some moments of success along the way.

Prepare for Roadblocks: Successful people know that not every plan will work. They also understand that frustration and discouragement are a normal part of the process. Having a backup plan helps to prepare your child for these possibilities. So will talking about specific challenges they may encounter as well as the negative emotions that often get triggered.

Practice Persistence Together: Kids learn by doing. A family project, whether planting a garden or cleaning a closet, is an opportunity for a trial run. Make explicit each step, from preparation to execution.

Enjoy Stories About Persistence: Stories in which the main character displayed persistence fill the media, literature and history. Be sure to balance your selection of super stars with unsung heroes and take note of the long hours of practice and failures along with fleeting moments of glory.

Accept Your Role as Coach: Your child is responsible for the work, not you.

Observe and Respond Thoughtfully: Is it persistence or something else? A child who does not understand the process of long division will struggle to do the homework, despite his best efforts. A student used to acing math suddenly says it boring. Or is she finding the work more challenging and is not used to putting in extra time on math?

Remind Your Child That Work is Hard: It may seem obvious, but completing a long-term project, practicing a musical instrument regularly, overcoming a learning disability day after day, or training a new puppy can be tiring, boring and sometimes seem pointless. Confidence grows when kids experience the correlation between effort and results, and when they see for themselves the value of time on task and commitment.

*Persistence is one of 16 Habits of Mind—traits that successful people typically use when confronted with challenging problems and situations. They were first identified by educators Art Costa and Bena Kallick almost three decades ago and continue to be taught in schools across the United States and around the world.

Angela Iadavaia-Cox is coauthor with Lauren Carner, Ph.D. of Raising Caring, Capable Kids with Habits of Mind: A Practical Guide for Parents Everywhere, published by The Institute for Habits of Mind.

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