KIDS
September 26, 2017

What Your Difficulties Teach Your Kids

Letting your kids see you struggle turns out to be a really good way to teach them to persist.

Parents often work hard to shield their children from difficulties they may be having, but one of the most important lessons you can teach your child only happens when a problem comes up. You may be unaware of it as you struggle with something — putting together a piece of furniture, or trying to open and set up one of your child's toys — but if your son or daughter is in the vicinity and watching, they may be picking up on your persistence.

Persevering in the face of inevitable obstacles and setbacks is a good predictor of the kind of “grit” that helps children become successful adults. And now, according to a team at MIT, it appears that kids can absorb this stuff before they can even talk — when they’re babies, just beginning to interact with their environments and observing their parents interact with theirs.

It’s fine for your child to see you struggle. Parents often want to make things look easy, but in reality this may not be the best way to help children develop grit.

Researchers had 15 month-olds watch an experimenter struggle with two tasks: removing a keychain from a carabiner and taking a toy frog out of a container. One group watched the adults struggle but succeed at each task, after 30 seconds. The experimenter also narrated her attempts: for example, “Hmm…I wonder how I can get my toy out of here? Does this work? No, how about this…”

Another group watched the experimenter succeed with no trouble three times in 30 seconds.

Then the babies were given a toy that they saw could make music. There was an obvious button on the front that looked like it should turn the toy on, but it didn’t. A less obvious button was what actually operated the toy. The researchers measured how many attempts the babies made to work the toy, and for how long.

Babies who’d seen the adults struggle and then succeed tried the (non-functional) button more times and for longer before deferring to their parents, who were also present.

“There wasn't any difference in how long they played with the toy or in how many times they tossed it to their parent,” study author, Julia Leonard, said in a statement. “The real difference was in the number of times they pressed the button before they asked for help and in total.” Especially worth noting is that the effect of observing adults struggle and persist was readily transferred to a totally new task for the babies.

When the experimenters engaged the babies with eye contact and saying the babies’ names in a second part of the experiment, babies were also more persistent than when the experimenters were less interactive.

The study points to a couple of different takeaways for parents: Not only is it best to interact with your kid as you’re engaging in various tasks, but it’s fine for your child to see you struggle. The researchers point out that parents often want to make things look easy, but in reality this may not be the best way to teach kids grit.

“There's some pressure on parents to make everything look easy and not get frustrated in front of their children,” says author Laura Schulz. “…[B]ut this does at least suggest that it may not be a bad thing to show your children that you are working hard to achieve your goals.”

Let children see you sweat, the authors advise. “Showing children that hard work works might encourage them to work hard too.”

The study is published in the journal Science.

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