Teaching Children the Skill of Persistence
Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
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Learning how to persist in the face of obstacles is essential for personal safety – and an important life skill. The following article is from The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults.
As any parent or teacher knows, most children can be fairly relentless about persisting in asking for what they want if they feel safe. In workshops with children as young as four, we often teach them to say the word, “Persistence!” We explain, “Persistence means ‘not giving up’ even if doing something is hard or doesn’t work at first.”
What Does Persistence Have To Do With Personal Safety?
Protecting children’s personal safety in the real world often requires their being able to keep going instead of giving up when faced with problems that feel uncomfortable or scary. For example, setting a boundary is likely to provoke a negative reaction at first. Knowing how to persist with a positive response to that negative reaction can make a big difference in whether or not the boundary will be respected. In addition, we want children to ask for help when they need it – but persisting in getting help when no one seems to be listening can be very hard work. In order for children to trust in their personal power, they need to know how to keep going even when they feel upset, discouraged, unhappy, embarrassed, or tired.
What Adults Can Do
Adults can support the development of persistence skills in the following ways:
- Give children opportunities to take on challenges where they can be successful;
- Offer guidance rather than taking over for them when children ask for help;
- Acknowledge unhappy feelings without letting children give up on themselves;
- Give children practice in supportive settings so they can rehearse the skills they need to learn;
- Provide in-the-moment coaching in how to keep going;
- Break a challenge into smaller steps when children get stuck; and,
- Motivate children to keep going even when they don’t feel like it.
Getting Little Kids To Hike Up Big Mountains
Physical activities can help build confidence in the ability to keep going. Some people do this through sports or dance. When my own kids were young, I would do it through hikes and camping trips with our family, our Girl Scout troop, and our Campfire Boy’s group. My theory was that, no matter what they said, if the children with me had energy enough to run around, yell, or splash in streams once we sat down during a hike, they had energy enough to keep on going.
“But I’m too tired! I can’t!” the children often complained. “It’s too far!”
“I understand,” I would say cheerfully. “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and you’ll make it to the top. I promise.”
Sometimes our hikes took longer and included a bit of moaning and groaning, but we always got there. I offered motivators to help make the hike more interesting and fun. Conversation. Undivided attention. Treats for the trail. Stories. Songs.
When children were really resistant, I upped the ante. “I love you too much to let you give up!” I explained to one young Girl Scout. For two miles, I held her sweaty hand firmly in my own to keep her from falling, since she insisted on staggering dramatically to show both of us (and everybody watching) how exhausted she was. When we got to the part of the trail that involved climbing over rocks with handholds, this girl got interested and excitedly joined her friends.
I encouraged the children hiking with me not to complain and did my best to reward cheerful perseverance. Their sense of accomplishment at the end of the trail always made whatever struggles we had along the way worth the work.
Recent research shows that children who were praised for trying hard did better on intelligence tests than children who were just told that they were smart. The reason seems to be that children who were just told that they were smart were afraid of failure. Children who understood that their brains are like muscles that need exercise were more likely to take risks and to expend effort.
Expending effort in the face of inner discomfort and outer discouragement takes work. Learning how to persist is a skill that can serve children well, not only in being safe with people, but in all areas of their lives. Each time a child shows determination in coping with an obstacle, large or small, we can celebrate by saying, “That’s great! You are using your Persistence Power!”
See also: Teaching the Skill of Confidence.