Teaching Kids Perseverance Requires…Perseverance!

Some kids (like some adults) seem to be born with the determination to conquer every challenge.  Other kids are choosier about where they channel their energy.  It’s not that they do not have “grit” or determination, but they may not currently have the internal drive to compete and attack in the same way their more ambitious-seeming peers do.  But kids, like adults, can learn to increase their stamina or perseverance on difficult tasks.  (They just cannot do so while you’re looking over their shoulder tonight.)  Learning to persevere itself requires perseverance.  So, what do you do when your young teen seems to be, simply put, a “quitter?”:

  1. First, revise your own thinking.  Pop culture is filled with black and white, dichotomous thinking about success and failure.  People love to self-identify as “Type A’s,” and to identify specific traits necessary to “success.”  But the truth is far more complex, and dichotomous thinking is usually a prelude to fear-based reactivity–Like when you take away your kid’s computer, phone and access to the car because he failed his Chem midterm.  You just want him to do his work, so he can get into college and get a good job.  But harsh consequences can backfire when your child really struggles with stamina issues.  So, what to do?
  2. Know it will take time.  As with building physical stamina, building mental stamina takes practice.  Do not expect him to finally listen to you and lift his head off the table, and become a self-starter in one night.  Try to stop expressing disapproval and try to get a sense of what’s actually going on.
  3. Most kids have assignments posted on line these days.  Great!  No forgetting to write stuff down.  But it can be a lot to wade through.  Sit with him as he goes through each class assignment on the school website or Google Classroom.  Use pen and paper to create the evening’s plan, so he does not need to keep returning to the webpage.  If possible print out hand outs/readings so he can mark text.
  4. Let him choose where he wants to begin.  Let him alone when he’s working well.  Tell him to call you for help.  Try to limit “help” to brief interventions, when he seems stuck on how to approach a task.  Don’t sit there next to him.  Be busy.
  5. Validate when a task is complex.  If you can’t help, do use the internet.  Do not berate your child for missing notes or not knowing a skill.  Model perseverance by demonstrating what you would do if you realized you did not know something you needed to know for a work task.  Problem solve and avoid blame.
  6. Model how to attack complex, multi-step problems.  Kids often think that other people are “magically” smarter or better at certain kinds of tasks.  Surely, everyone has their strength areas and areas of interest.  However, no one is magically arriving at the correct answer to a difficult multiple choice question or math problem.  Kids with perseverance usually a) like the task at hand b) assume they will need to work for the answer c) know correct answers are not magically arrived at d) understand how to process information step by step (rather than skipping ahead on “instinct”).  There are many opportunities for adults to unpack the thinking involved in solving complicated questions.  Enumerate steps clearly, and try to use a visual component in your explanation.  Show your child how to mark up a multiple choice question by crossing out clear wrong answers and weighing the validity of the best choices.  Demonstrate how each word in a math question or multiple choice question matters.
  7. Observe without judgment.  Your kid may learn certain complex tasks with ease–like driving a car or assembling some gadget.  This doesn’t prove he’s lazy when he’s challenged by other types of complex tasks.  Liking something alters how we think and allows us to solve problems and persevere.  If your kid shows perseverance on certain kinds of non-academic tasks, great!  Full stop.  Enjoy that he finds pleasure in tasks of his own choosing.
  8. Take action and give it time. If helping your child get organized every night is too frustrating, a tutor with classroom experience, or excellent training can help.  However, he’s going to have to move toward independence eventually. This can take a while!  Kids mature enormously month to month and year to year.  If your child has an abysmal freshman year in high school, he needs help, and he needs time.  Message positively–he has time to turn things around and not everyone matures at the same pace.  It is important to establish a routine around work at home that is both habitual and flexible.  Some assignments may still occasionally go unfinished.  Some quiz grades may not meet your standards.  Expect incremental, unsteady progress.  (Often an amazing tutoring session one week is followed by a less productive session the following week–each day brings its unique challenges.)
  9. Celebrate.  I don’t mean always give him cookies when he does a good job, but a treat doesn’t hurt.  But even more powerful is praise.  When we’re stressed we forget to acknowledge what’s already been accomplished.  There’s always so much more to do!  But when I tell a teen that I was thinking about how well they persevered last week on my drive over, the smiles are enormous.  Kids love to hear that you’ve been thinking about them positively, that you enjoy being around them and that you can see their effort, even when success remains out of reach.
  10. Re-frame the notion of quitting/giving up/lacking stamina.  Perseverance is above all an attitude.  People rarely actually “quit” important tasks.  We back off.  This is healthy and often self-protective.  We’re over-stimulated, and we can’t think straight.  The problem is “backing-off” can mean missing out, missing deadlines, and losing rather than gaining competencies.  If we label our behavior “backing-off” rather than “giving-up” we give ourselves the space and time to get back in the arena.  This is what kids need when they get stuck on difficult tasks.  They may need to back-off and get help.  Or they may need to rest, and return to the task later.  Give your child a set of choices when he gets stuck: back-off (and really do not re-approach the task until he gets help from a tutor/teacher), rest and return, or persevere.  Labeling the choices makes “quitting” not a real option without saying so.  In other words, you’re modeling the kind of self-awareness that is necessary for the development of true perseverance.

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