Praise isn’t the only way to inspire fortitude in your cutie.
According to a team of cognitive scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, tots who saw adults work hard in the face of challenges quickly learned the value of hard work too!
This character-building finding came about like this:
MIT researchers devised an experiment in which babies as young as 15 months old watch an adult attempt two potentially frustrating tasks: taking a key off a ring and removing a toy from a container.
Some babies saw the tester complete the job successfully, quickly, and repeatedly—three times in half a minute. Others saw the adult struggling for 30 seconds before succeeding.
Those babies who saw the adult putting in extra effort—put in more effort of their own when it was time to face their own baby-size challenge.
Given a gadget they knew could play music, the babies had to figure out how to turn the toy on. Those who had seen the adults succeed easily gave up quickly. But those who watched a few failed attempts seemed to have learned that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
It took just 30 seconds of observation for those little smarties to figure out the value of effort. But researchers also identified another favorable factor. When experimenters engaged with some of the babies (saying their names, making eye contact, talking to them), those babies tried harder on their task. It was as if they knew someone was in their corner, so they were more willing to take on a challenge.
So that’s where you come in as a parent. To help your little one gain grit and perseverance, try these tips:
- First, encourage your baby when she’s trying to accomplish something, such as sorting shapes in a toy or mastering a forward crawl. Offer your presence along with reassuring words. But don’t step in and fix things for her too quickly. Instead…
- Give your tot a chance to put in some of that all-important effort and experimentation first. When it is time to offer help, you want to coach—not take over. You might put your hand over your baby’s hand and guide the shape to the right slot on the sorter—but let her push it in.
- Be sure to let your cutie try it again on her own, and praise her for doing so. These confidence-building activities will help too.
You also can be a strong role model for your little striver. Instead of brushing off or hiding your struggles from your baby, tell him what’s going on: “Wow, I am really having a hard time opening this jar. I’ll keep working on it, though! Maybe I can try another way.” He may not understand each word you are saying, but he can see the effort you are making, just like the babies in the study.
"There's some pressure on parents to make everything look easy and not get frustrated in front of their children," says Laura Schulz, a professor of cognitive science at MIT and coauthor of the study. "This does at least suggest that it may not be a bad thing to show your children that you are working hard to achieve your goals." A temper tantrum over spilled milk or lost keys isn’t productive. But a calm sense of determination in the face of frustration really could inspire your baby to try his best—even when tasks are tough.