These are words I’ve heard so many times from parents as they wrestle with one of the tougher jobs of parenthood: teaching children persistence:
“I want my daughter to be challenged, so let’s put her in the honors classes. But I don’t want her to be stressed. Can she drop it if it’s too hard?”
or something like…
“I can’t get my son to stick with anything! He thinks he wants to do something so I pay for it, and then he changes his mind and quits and my money is wasted!”
Persistence is a skill.
Most kids will use it when they’re doing something they’re really interested in, but when something gets hard or interest starts to lag, many will give up. If parents let this behavior become a regular pattern, not only will their children lack a strong work ethic, but also the sense of accomplishment and self-esteem that come with mastering challenges.
It’s tough to face down our kids when we’re met with whining, pouting or just plain refusal to try. It’s easier to give up ourselves, let kids off the hook, and then complain to friends and teachers that kids today don’t know how to work hard! The fact is, to have persistent kids, we need to be persistent parents.
There’s a formula for growing persistence: time + practice + consistency.
We must be willing to invest time in our children as we help them practice seeing a task through from start to finish, and consistently make that the expectation.
Start simple and develop a pattern
Begin with simple chores as soon as kids can do the basics.
Putting away laundry can be done by a 3-year-old, with help and an understanding that the clothes will likely come out of the drawer more wrinkled than they went in.
As the child becomes more accomplished, parents can step back and watch, and eventually be able to say, “You need to put away your laundry before you ____.” If the parent has been consistent in the expectation of laundry before fun, the child will (most of the time) put away the clothes and go about his business.
If push-back is met with a loving, “I will be happy to let you _____ as soon as you have put away your laundry,” kids will (most of the time) follow through, albeit with some grumbling. That’s okay. A little grumbling never hurt anyone.
This pattern can be followed for everything our children need to learn how to do: housework, homework, and yardwork. The movement from easy to hard becomes seamless because parents are gradually increasing the load and for each additional step, kids unconsciously adopt the mindset of, “I can do this. It may not be fun, but I can.”
Teach them to ask for help
So, what if the schoolwork surpasses a parent’s ability? That’s when we teach kids to ask for help, which is a subset of persistence.
We still use the time + practice + consistency model: we help our kids set up an appointment with the teacher, follow through with expectations for proof that the appointment has been kept, and monitor consistently how often our child needs to get that extra help to master the challenge.
And what about extracurricular activities? Parents can apply time + practice + consistency there, too. Discuss in advance what the time commitment will be, and set the expectation that kids will participate for the duration of the season/payment period. Follow through with these expectations consistently, and kids will start to be a little more discriminating before just jumping into something. (That’s a skill, too!)
Is it ever OK to give up?
Isn’t it ever okay to give up? Of course! Another subset of persistence is recognizing when we’ve taken on more than we can handle. The key is determining what lesson kids will learn by being allowed to quit. These decisions can be made lightly about free, open-ended activities where stepping away doesn’t have a negative learning impact on your child.
Discussions about quitting will be heavier when the stakes are higher, and should include eliciting observations from kids about what they are learning from the experience, and how that learning will impact future decisions and opportunities.
Life is sometimes hard and kids need to be able to rise to the challenges they will face. When we teach them persistence, we also grow their sense of capability and control over what happens to them.
That’s bigger than chores, homework and extracurricular activities, but it starts there, with parents persistently committing our own time to that great big picture of how we want our children to be!
Inconvenient? Frequently! Worth it? Definitely!