Teaching kids to wait and persevere kicks success into higher gear

mother working on addition problem with young girl but she looks frustrated

The next time your child says, “I can’t do it,” think carefully about whether it’s really time to jump in and do it for them or whether a little more struggle could be their friend.

Keeping at it pays big

A piece of what we now call grit, sometimes called stick-to-itiveness, perseverance is so important that an October post to the CNBC Make It blog, by Michele Borba, Ed.D, educational psychologist, parenting expert, and author, is titled “…The No. 1 Soft Skill That Predicts Kids’ Success More Than IQ—and How to Teach It.”

John D. Rockefeller clearly agreed, saying, “I do not think there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.”

When our kids seem frustrated at their inability to do or figure out a task, the urge to do it for them often feels both natural and immediate for two reasons: we want to relieve their discouragement, but our own perseverance may be thin, or our time short. It can seem much easier than urging our child to give it another try or walking them through the “think about it” steps that might get the job done.

Merriam Webster tells us, in part, that perseverance is “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure or opposition.”

It’s that “continued effort” that helps build stamina not just for eventually experiencing the thrill of success but also for weathering life’s inevitable challenges.

Keeping at it starts early

In 2020 The Today Show’s Parenting Guides posted “Developing Perseverance in Preschoolers: Here’s What to Know.” The piece suggests reading books together such as the classic The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper and Winners Never Quit! by Mia Hamm.

mother and young child on the floor working on a jig-saw puzzle

The post also says, “Try to let your child fail from time to time. If your child is working on a puzzle or trying to zip his jacket and you see him struggling, try not to step in immediately.” It notes that “Allowing your child time to work through frustrating and difficult tasks will help build his perseverance.” It advises that if kids ask for help, show them how to do it, and be patient if they want to try again.

mother and father playing on the floor with blocks with their young child

They quoted Judy Willis, a neurologist, who “recommends setting your kids up for success by letting them know when something will require time and perseverance.” Whether “starting a puzzle, or learning to tie a shoe, tell them it won’t be completed all in one sitting.” Help them break the task down into smaller tasks that are reasonable to achieve step by step.

Lift the lid on fame, success, or security and give kids a peek

That Today post also urges talking to kids about “the work that goes into success.” Too often kids look at others’ achievements and think those peers are just “naturally good” at whatever it is and that success “just happens.”

Our instant gratification culture, with information, purchases, and the feel-good of “likes” just a few keystrokes away contributes to that mindset.

Share what it took for you or other adults in the family to achieve goals. A child born into financial security can’t see the “lean years” or the struggle, budgeting and decision-marking that went into it—maybe frustration and disappointments too. So tell them. And let them know how good it felt to come out the other side.

If you or someone else is really good at something, and your child knows it, let them also know how much practice and commitment went into it.

The Growing Room, a multi-site after-school program in California’s San Ramon Valley Unified School District, has a website page devoted to “Teaching Impulse Control in a [sic] Instant Gratification Society.” It suggests that “Learning to wait may be one of the most important lessons you teach your child today to guarantee a successful life in the future.”

On a related note, short-term disappointment and rejection do not equal long-term failure. The Cultured Giraffe notes that Stephen King’s classic horror novel Carrie, originally released as a film in 1976 and remade in 2013, was turned down 80 times, Dr. Seuss had 27 rejections, and C.S. Lewis “faced 800 rejections before he got his first book published.” Bill Gates’ first company, which read data from traffic counters on roads to create reports for engineers, was a failure. Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder, recounted in a 1995 interview with Fortune magazine, linked on CNN and quoted many times over in multiple sources, “Even though Traf-O-Data wasn’t a roaring success, it was seminal in preparing us to make Microsoft’s first product a couple of years later.”

Clearly, helping kids understand that “wait for it” is not just a cute phrase and that taking two steps forward and one step back is not uncommon, is doing them a kindness. As they take it in, be sure to encourage perseverance, whether with math homework or game skills, with praise such as “Great job sticking with that. I know it felt frustrating at first,” “Yay! You didn’t give up!“ or “Wow. I saw you tried really hard. You’ve almost got it.”

And one of these days, they really will.

young child on the floor has just finished putting together a jig-saw puzzle