Testing the limits: Teaching our kids to be tenacious

New research shows we can teach our children to be tenacious from an early age, writes Jonathan deBurca Butler

A child's ability is like a muscle that needs exercise to grow and parents play a key role in showing and practising persistence.

THERE is not a day goes by that we don’t see or hear an item relating to Generation Snowflake and its lack of grit. The oft (and unfairly) criticised group, also known as Millennials, are, according to some, a lost generation when it comes to backbone. So what hope for the future?

According to new research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we can teach our children to be tenacious from an early age. Researchers at the institute conducted experiments with 262 children aged 13 to 18 months.

The experiments consisted of two groups of children first watching a researcher remove a rubber frog from a clear plastic container and then unhooking a keychain from a metal ring.

For one group, the researcher succeeded after 30 seconds of appearing to struggle with the task. For the other, success came easily and after just 10 seconds.

In both cases, the researcher narrated the task and interacted with the child, but did so more for some than for others.

After seeing the adult solve the challenges, the babies were shown that a felt-covered box could play music and were encouraged to turn the music on. The box had an attractive and large red button which was, of course, inactive. The researchers wanted to find out how long the children would persist in pushing the button before giving up.

It turned out that children consistently pressed the button more often if they’d seen the researcher struggle than if she had solved her tasks easily — 23 times as opposed to 12.

Interestingly, children were more likely to try harder if the researcher had actively engaged the child while doing the initial adult-only tasks. The researchers concluded that eye contact, using the child’s name, and adopting a high-pitched voice led to better results when the child came to do their own task.

While researchers stressed that the study was incomprehensive, they did suggest that young babies could perhaps “learn the value of effort from just a couple of examples”.

“Babies may not be able to tell us much but they are taking in so much,” says Deirdre Murray, consultant paediatrician and senior lecturer in the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, University College Cork. “Your brain is developing rapidly in those first three years and a lot of your connections, your white matter, isn’t formed. It forms in those couple of years and so your environment, what you’re exposed to has a huge effect on your development and the more we can talk to babies and engage with them the more they learn.”

Watching others being persistent is “only one contributor of actually acquiring persistence as a skill”, says Michelle Downes, assistant professor in developmental neuropsychology at University College Dublin. “What’s great about this research is that it shows that other factors such as encouragement for effort and communication on the importance of persistence are important too.”

Downes says that persistence in infants is one early indicator of long-term executive function skills — an umbrella term for a collection of higher-order skills such as attention control, working memory, and decision making.

“Executive functioning is more important than IQ,” says Downes. “In terms of an individual child’s school readiness and academic achievement as well as other important everyday factors such as social functioning.”

It would seem, therefore, that being dogged, persistent, or maybe even a little pig-headed might get you a long way in life, but what of the the traditional theory that says if it’s it not in you, it’s just not in you? What if being tenacious is just not in your DNA?

“It turns out that whether we view these skills as inherent or learnt has become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Dr Deirdre MacIntyre, clinical psychologist and founding director of Institute of Child Education and Psychology Europe.

“If we believe that a particular skill or characteristic such as tenacity is inborn then we think there’s nothing we can do about it. But we really need to be careful not to put a ceiling on children’s potential by boxing them in or by stereotyping them too early.”

As an example, MacIntyre points out that years ago we had very limited expectations of what children with learning disabilities could do and how we treated them was an embarrassing reflection of that attitude.

“Now we know that once we put the right supports in place — and higher expectations — we can see how much can be learnt,” she says. “We need to think of ability as more like a muscle that grows and needs exercise and that in turn will breed perseverance.”

MacIntyre, like Downes, also stresses the importance of powerful interaction where the mother or father is showing and practising persistence, displaying that it’s OK to fail and is practising encouragement out loud. How and what you encourage is the key to helping with strength of character.

“It’s not a question of over or under praising really but what you praise,” she says. “So telling a little girl ‘she’s great for doing your homework’ is perfect but not really ‘you’re so clever’ because it’s the effort you want to praise rather than the outcome. You’re praising the behaviour you want rather than an innate quality as such.”

MacIntyre offers a word of caution to parents who may take this advice as a licence to push their children too far.

“A German psychologist, Tom Senninger, talks about the three different zones of learning,” she says. “The stretch zone, the comfort zone, and the panic zone, and you don’t want people to be working in the panic zone where they are way out of their depth or very uncomfortable with the level of challenge they’re facing — so you want them in the stretch zone, where’s there’s a bit of failure that they can tolerate, where they have to make a bit of effort because that’s how we learn. We actually don’t learn, even as adults, when everything is going smoothly for us.”

So it seems the age-old adage is spot on: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again... just know when to quit.


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