Building Perseverance in Children

perseveranceWinston Churchill said, “Continuous effort—not strength or intelligence—is the key to unlocking our potential.”

For someone like me who grew up with learning challenges, hard work was the rule of the day. With my reading and writing processing issues, all attempts at learning and school assignments could probably have been considered heroic efforts on my part. Unfortunately, all that effort was never recognized. Instead, the emphasis was always on what grade I got. Did I pass or fail? Did I win or lose? How many did I miss? How many did I get wrong?

It was somewhat discouraging, to say the least.

Back in 1992, Professor Harold Stevenson of the University of Michigan published research that explains the role perseverance has in success. After spending years analyzing student achievements in the United States, Japan, China, and Taiwan, Stevenson reached a critical conclusion: the key to success lies in what parents choose to emphasize about their children’s learning.

Stevenson observed in his study that Asian parents strongly stress the value of hard work and effort with their children. They consistently conveyed the message, “Work as hard as you can, and then you will be successful.” By expecting their children to work hard, they nurtured perseverance in their children. And according to this study, those parental expectations have a remarkable effect on children. The researchers discovered that as a group, Asian children worked longer hours and more intensively than their American counterparts because they recognized that their success was based on how hard they worked. Even though grades certainly mattered, by focusing on effort and on sticking to a project in spite of its difficulty, the grades took care of themselves.

In contrast, American parents tended to emphasize their children’s innate talents and abilities. Professor Stevenson also observed a strong tendency for American parents to lower their academic expectations if they perceived that their children had lower academic abilities or learning challenges.

The Asian model embraces a different philosophy: any child can succeed regardless of their learning challenge or IQ score—success is all a matter of how hard one is willing to work.

Stevenson’s insightful research in child psychology and its place in the classroom and at home emphasizes the fact that parents especially need to change their focus and communication style with their children if they want to build perseverance in their children.

Just imagine the long-term effect it could have on children if we spent more time recognizing their efforts and encouraging them to keep working hard in spite of challenges!

Kids can learn from a very young age that there is nothing to stop them from succeeding if they put their heart and soul into an endeavor. Mistakes, failures, and learning struggles are not excuses to quit. Rather, they are temporary setbacks and challenges that allow us to discover what works for us and our learning/processing style.

Here are a few questions parents can reflect on:

  • What subtle messages do I send my children about my expectations of their abilities?
  • Do I model perseverance for them, or do they see me demonstrating a low threshold for frustration?
  • When they bring schoolwork home, do I praise their efforts or only notice the grade?
  • When was the last time I noticed and praised my child’s tenacity and stick-to-itiveness?
  • Am I more likely to reinforce the value of hard work or only the end result?

Seeing children reach their potential is one of the most joyful things a parent can experience. To help them unlock their potential, as Churchill enjoined, parents can make a conscious effort to shift their focus to noticing and praising their children’s hard work and tenacity.