Helping Kids Overcome Frustration and Failure
New research illuminates how parents and teachers can nurture persistence.
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I’m back in New York but my brain is still reeling from the social psychology convention I attended last weekend in Atlanta. I learned so much, and I’m excited to share relevant bits with you here over the coming months. I also want to thank you, because your paid subscriptions are helping to fund my way to the biennial conference of the Society for Research in Child Development later this month, where I’ll be learning about new research in developmental psychology. Of course, I’ll share that here, too.
Today, I want to discuss new research that sheds light on how best to help kids overcome failure and persist in the face of challenges. Before getting into it, I want to emphasize that, of course, quitting can also be useful. If your kid is burned out from doing too many activities, or has discovered they don’t like doing something as much as they thought they did, it is perfectly acceptable — and often quite helpful — to let them quit. (Read my recent newsletter on the benefits of quitting, and how to let your kids do it, here.)
Still, of course, there are circumstances in which we really want our kids to keep on keeping on. Here are four of the latest science-backed strategies for helping them do just that.
Let your kids watch you struggle (and then succeed).
Recent studies suggest that when young kids watch an adult struggle and persist at a challenging activity and eventually succeed, they try harder on future tasks than if they had watched the adult succeed effortlessly. Narrating the experience can strengthen the effect: In one recent study, preschoolers persisted the longest on challenging tasks after watching an adult work tirelessly and then succeed on a task while the adult said things like “this will be hard.”
Amazingly, too, research has found that even 15-month-olds will try harder after seeing adults succeed after an initial failure.
You can also tell stories that illustrate the point, too. In a 2021 study, 4- and 5-year-old kids were told stories about successful scientists. Those who were told that the scientists didn’t always succeed right away were more likely to persevere during a difficult task than if they’d been told about the scientists’ success without any mention of challenges or struggles.
Why does this strategy work? It helps kids recognize that success is not something that always comes easy, and that effort and mistakes lead to learning and mastery.
Normalize the bumpy nature of progress.
In one of the sessions I attended at last weekend’s conference, Jessica Paek, a Ph.D. student at Duke University, presented fascinating research on what happens when the progress we experience feels unsteady — that feeling of taking two steps forward and one step back. They found that even when adults accomplish the same number of tasks overall, those who are made to feel like their progress has been unsteady feel less accomplished, are less willing to continue, and express more desire to quit than those who are made to feel like their progress has been steady.
Paek and her colleagues then designed an intervention. They split more adults into two groups. One group read a science article informing them that “people normally make steady progress” and that “goal progress should not have too many ups and downs.” Those in the other group read a different article explaining that “people normally do not make steady progress” and that “goal progress should have its ups and downs.”
Then, they essentially re-ran the first experiment. They found that the adults who had been made to feel their progress had been unsteady — and who had also read the article saying unsteady progress is normal and to be expected — did not experience nearly the same degree of frustration and desire to quit as the adults had in the first part of the study.
Importantly, this research was done in adults, not kids. So we don’t have any direct evidence (yet!) that this kind of approach will work in children — but I don’t see a downside to trying it. Tell your kids that it’s totally normal to experience success followed by frustrating setbacks. When we normalize unsteady progress, we will likely help kids push through their frustration. We want kids to know that ups and downs are totally normal and don’t hinder eventual success.
Praise for effort and tie effort to outcome.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one, because I’ve talked in detail about growth mindset before. (If you want those details, check out this newsletter.) But the gist of it is this: Praise for effort instead of for ability or achievement. More “You worked hard on those problems!” and less “You’re so good at math!” It’s also crucial to tie effort to successful outcomes: “You probably got that good math grade because you worked/studied so hard.”
Today, I want want to share some additional research I recently discovered on the power of growth mindset in very young kids.
In one recent study, researchers found that 18-month-olds persevered longer on a task that involved stacking gears if their parents said things to them like “Great stacking!” or “You’re trying so hard!” compared with kids whose parents said things like “You’re so smart.” The kids praised for effort spent more time trying, had more successful stacks, and continued trying more in the face of failure.
Another study found that toddlers who were praised for effort by parents at ages 1, 2 and 3 performed better on math and reading tests in the fourth grade. Granted, we can’t be sure if other unrelated factors might be driving that relationship (maybe parents who praise for effort do a lot of things differently at home that boost learning), but it’s certainly a promising correlation.
Don’t take over when your kids struggle.
It’s so hard not to jump in and rescue children when they’re struggling and frustrated. But we know from research that kids infer this kind of meddling as evidence that we think they’re incompetent — which has implications for their self-esteem. What we want, instead, is to communicate that we have faith in them — and to help them develop the skills to get through these moments on their own.
Research directly shows that rescuing kids makes them less persistent. A 2021 study found that when adults stepped in and took over while 4- to 5-year-olds were working on hard puzzles — the adults said things like “Hmm… This is hard, why don’t I just do it for you?” — the kids were less likely to persist in a subsequent challenging task compared with kids who worked with adults who instead provided scaffolding and encouragement.
So when your kids are struggling, offer empathy and perhaps suggestions, but try your best (I know it’s hard!) to resist the urge to rescue.
And now for this week’s
I’m commenting on this Instagram post from @healthymomprojectcle about using grape juice to prevent stomach bugs:
Okay, my thoughts.
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