Developing Perseverance and Resilience Through Failure
As parents, how do you we go about developing perseverance and resilience in our children?
A Disturbing Trend in Child Development
As someone that has worked in education for over thirty years, I have seen parenting styles shift in a multitude of directions. However, in the last decade educators have seen a shift in parenting that has significantly affected how their children are developing emotionally and socially. One frightening trend – the inability to persevere through challenging tasks partnered with the inability to handle failure. This has become a consistent topic of concern for several years in education. The inability to “stick-to-it” with a good attitude is now a common deficit from preschool through young adulthood.
Research Shows: Curriculum and Competencies Are Not to Blame
A study was conducted with 3rd graders in Singapore and with an equivalent group in the U.S. Each group of 3rd graders was given a collection of higher-level math problems and encouraged to take as much time as they needed to solve the problems. They were also allowed to work in groups. Would you like to take a guess how each group responded and how long each group worked on the problems? I posed this scenario to a few of my friends, colleagues, and family members. Everyone guessed that the students in Singapore solved the problems first (which actually wasn’t even part of the choice) and that the U.S. students worked on it for about 20-30 minutes. The actual results were the Singapore children worked on it for over an hour and had to be asked to stop by their teachers. The U.S. students “worked” on the problem for 34 seconds and gave up, making statements like, “You haven’t taught me this yet,” “I don’t get it,” and, “This is too hard.” What was the difference? Mindset. The students in Singapore were developing perseverance and resilience.
The general results of the study would not surprise anyone in education today. What is surprising about the study is the degree to which our students lack both qualities – 34 seconds doesn’t mean they have less perseverance, it means they have zero. This topic reminds me of an epiphany I had when my boys first started playing baseball which would continue to shape and develop how I encouraged and challenged students in my classroom.
Growing up, my two sons enjoyed school and playing after school sports with some of their friends; they did not have much to overcome each day. Life in their world was pretty easy. As a mom, I saw this as a problem. How could I introduce character-shaping challenges into their lives?
It wasn’t until my oldest son Johnathan was about 8 years old that I began to realize that playing baseball would benefit my sons more than any of the standard reasons given – failure. Not just failure, but public, high-stakes, and even humiliating failure – otherwise known as the batters’ box. If you think I am being melodramatic, the next time the Little League World Series is on, just spend 20 minutes watching it. The intense pressure is palpable even through the screen.
The Missing Ingredient in Developing Perseverance: Failure
The batter’s box – three strikes and you are out; hit a pop-up and you are out; hit a ball near a player in the infield and you or one of your teammates is out. Three outs and the inning is over and your opponent gets a chance to rack up runs against you. Yes, it is just a game and yes, everyone strikes out. But think about it, you are 8 years old and you step into the batter’s box, to face a pitcher whose whole goal is to strike you out. If that isn’t stressful enough, a baseball courtesy is for all players and fans to fall silent a soon as the pitcher winds up. This means everything is quiet and everyone is focused on you. You freeze and don’t swing and the umpire might yell, “Strike.” You swing and miss – the umpire yells, “Strike.” You get the picture. If you strike out, you are expected to walk back to the dugout, in front of the stands filled with fans and take a seat in the dugout. Unless you were the third out and then you have to shake it off and take the field because “you” just ended your team’s chance to get any more runs that inning.
Yikes! Some of you may be questioning why any sane parent would allow their child to play such a cruel sport! Please stay with me and you will see why providing your child the opportunity to fail could be one of the best parenting decisions you make.
Yes, I know it is a team sport and great coaches make sure that all of the players feel supported (that necessary component will be addressed in just a bit). I am focusing on the internal challenge that each player must overcome – the fear of striking out (the challenge) or getting out (overcoming the failure). Some kids never get over it and they freeze in place and hope the pitcher makes four mistakes and they get on base. Other kids get mad and blame the umpire, their bat, the sun, the catcher, etc. Many kids well up in tears on the way back to the dugout and/or try to hide the tears with angry gestures.
However, with great coaching and parental support, many kids become better hitters as they are able to put failures into perspective. They are able to accept the advice of their coaches, developing stronger skills and increasing their ability to rally back from striking out or making an error, which not only benefits them personally but the entire team as well. The latter is why I was committed to my sons continuing in baseball and why I encourage parents today to put their children in situations that provide an opportunity for the development of not just teamwork, but for developing perseverance and resilience. Sports, music performance and public speaking are all great options.
The Child Developmental Hat Trick: Failure, Perseverance, Resiliency
Perseverance is defined as the ability to remain steadfast despite the level of the challenge and/or the delay of achieving success. Resiliency is the ability to withstand or recover from difficulties. Resilience is developed when perseverance is rewarded and failure is supported (that’s where the great coach comes in). Resilience and perseverance will never develop if someone never faces a challenge and never experiences failure. To bring this back to parenting terms, if we clear the path of every obstacle our children may encounter and rush in to defend or rescue our children from failure, they will never be equipped to hold strong and/or recover from loss. Some will freeze and make no decisions, refusing to even attempt anything out of their comfort zone. Others will become angry and stomp off, blaming everyone else for their failure. On the contrary, those that developed perseverance and resilience will become adults that are truly equipped to tackle the problems and challenges of life, which we all know require more than 34 seconds to solve.
For more tips for developing perseverance in your children and how to find the balance between supporting them through failure instead of rescuing them from it, check out Tim Elmore’s blog at Growing Leaders, Ready for Life. At (Trinity Lutheran, we use Elmore’s “Habitudes” curriculum in our Middle School Grade Leadership Academy.)
Again, I encourage you to shift your view of failure as something to protect your children from to something your child can learn from.
One final piece of advice: if your child is playing a team sport, when their team loses, wait until they stop crying before asking what they learned from their experience.
What about your child?
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