How to Teach Your Child Persistence | exSTEMsions

How to Teach Your Child Persistence

There are many kinds of persistence

As a parent, you might hear a lot about the value of persistence from the world around you. I know I hear this message from my kids’ schools, from the media, from friends on social media, and from my teacher friends, among other places!  So why is persistence such a point of discussion?

I know that my kids demonstrate persistence in certain situations and can sometimes be very persistent in their deep love of unexpected things.  For example, my daughter has proven to be very persistent in her love of dinosaurs - going on 4 years now. This is a type of persistence, but it’s not the kind we want to discuss here. What we really want to talk about is how to help your child persist as they solve problems, or are confronted by situations where they aren’t really sure what to do to move forward.

Persistence in problem solving

If you look up the definition of “persist” in Merriam Webster, the first definition is “to go on resolutely or stubbornly in spite of opposition, importunity, or warning.”  This definition is precisely the kind of persistence that we, as parents, should want to build in our kids, the kind that allows our children to press on in the face of adversity, especially when that adversity comes in the form of a tough problem or challenge that needs to be overcome.  I can think of lots of situations where I have to practice persistence, on a daily basis, to keep work, life, and family on the right track by solving problems that appear in my path. I’m sure you can think of lots of examples too. There will be many times just like these, in the lives of our children, where they are going to need to be unswerving, even stubborn, in ways both big and small.

So now to the important question. How do we help our kids to learn to persist, to be unwavering, to be stubborn in the face of adversity or pushback? We ask them to practice it!

To learn persistence, practice persistence

What does that mean? It means we give them tasks - academic tasks, day-to-day tasks, any kind of task you like - as long as they are tasks that are challenging; then, we adults can help our children, as needed, to persist as they perform those tasks. The key is that the task needs to be at least a bit of a challenge.

Think about things you do over the course of the day. Pick out one or two that are mundane, easy tasks. How much do they force you to practice persisting in the face of struggle? Not much. Now think about things you do where you might still be learning many smaller parts of a more complicated job, or a type of work that you aren’t naturally proficient in. When you do these tasks that are more challenging, you are forced to stick with it, to be more stubborn, to persist more insistently. We help our children to learn to be more persistent by placing them in situations like these, that basically ask them to persist.

Impossible tasks don’t foster persistence

Let’s be clear. We’re suggesting that kids learn to persist when they are required to do so by challenging tasks. Remember, though, that “challenging” isn’t the same as “impossible”. If you give someone a task where there is basically no chance they will complete it, or the challenge is just too far outside of their current capabilities, they won’t practice persistence - they’ll practice frustration. Frustration is not the goal here; the goal is to give challenges that are just enough above what your child can do now, to be hard, without being outlandishly so.

For example, my 4-year-old son loves puzzles. He’s very comfortable putting together 36-piece puzzles all on his own, and he will do the same puzzles over and over again. Sometimes, I replace his puzzle with one that is 64 or 72 pieces. These are harder for him, but they aren’t impossible. I don’t swap his 36-piece puzzles for 1,000-piece puzzles; that’s far outside of what he can do right now.  But while 64 pieces is a stretch for him, it’s a stretch he’s totally capable of.

Persistence… with a little help from the parents!

And it is completely okay to help your child when they are “stretching”.  You might have heard the word “stretch” in something related to your child’s education - when your child “stretches” they meet the challenge in front of them by thinking, working, and learning in ways that are a little difficult for them, and cause them to reach for new tools and ideas. Stretching can be difficult, and when it becomes too difficult, it can be really helpful for the parent to step in and give a little nudge in the right direction.  For example, when my son is working on larger puzzles, I will help him sort the edges from the middles, or help him group pieces into sections by their colors or patterns, or even rotate a piece now and then if he’s starting to get really stuck. I want him to keep at it without getting overly frustrated and feeling like he needs to quit entirely. If I need to help a little, so be it. And the same applies for you and your kids. You know them best, and you know what it looks and sounds like when they approach the edge of the frustration cliff. It’s not only okay, but appropriate, to gently intervene and pull them away from the cliff - just try not to carry them all the way home!  Remember that helping does not mean we do it all for them! I know how enormously proud my son is when he finishes his stretch puzzles “all by himself”. I don’t want to help so much that I deprive him of the chance to feel a sense of accomplishment, or that we miss out on celebrating his good work.

We can help our children to be more persistent, if we ask them to do things that are challenging, but not impossible. Offer them gentle support when they need it, as they go. Celebrate accomplishments. Then do it again. The more persistent you are in helping your children to persist, the more persistent they will grow to be!!

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