When something doesn’t work on the first try, what does your child do? Does she stop and figure out what might work better? Or does she give up or ask for help?And what do you do, when your child attempts challenging tasks but then struggles? Are you quick to step in to complete the task for him? Do you even avoid letting your child try tasks that might be difficult, because you want to avoid the frustration?
Here’s the thing: everything we know how to do we learned the hard way, through trying and failing and then trying again. That’s really the definition of learning, to figure out something we didn’t know before we started. So when we only let children do things we know they’ll be successful at or when we step in to do things for them once they encounter a setback, we derail the very thing we’re supposed to be all about. We derail learning.
Carol Dweck, the noted expert on children’s motivation and learning, studied fifth grade children’s reactions to tricky math problems. She found that some children acted helplessly and quickly quit trying but that other children seemed to relish the challenge and enjoyed applying their thinking to working out a solution. The two different approaches to hard tasks didn’t seem to depend on what we might call “intelligence.” Kids in both groups were equally smart.
What seemed to matter was children’s expectations for their own learning. Kids who think things should be easy for them and who are praised for getting the right answer to easy questions balk at even trying to work out answers to hard questions. This makes sense: if your belief in your ability depends on always getting the right answer, even trying to answer a hard question has the potential to reveal you’re not so smart as you thought you were. But if your belief in your ability depends on your resourcefulness and persistence and dogged determination to solve problems, then the harder the problem, the smarter you feel.
The question for us, then, is how do fifth graders get this way? What went wrong in their past experience to convince them that trying is dangerous? I may not be able to tell you what happened, precisely, but I can tell you when: in their preschool and early elementary school years. Children form their ideas about themselves and their abilities long before we think they do. And we’re the ones who influence those ideas, for good and for bad.
So take a look at the tasks you let your kids take on. Look at their reaction – and your reaction – to struggle and frustration and failure. Make certain you support effort and persistence. Try not to be too quick to step in to help.
At the same time, avoid praising right answers and easy successes. When children think our opinions of them depend on their always being right, they’ll be less daring in tackling challenging problems. Congratulate your child on a good try. Help him to try again.
Do your children love a challenge? I hope they do.