Parents often ask me why one child seems to love new challenges while another gives up easily, or why one doesn’t cry over failure but the other falls apart the moment something seems difficult. The truth is that all kids are different, and temperament does play a role in perseverance and building resilience.
Don’t worry if you have a pint-sized quitter on your hands. Giving up when the going gets tough is common in the early years. Preschoolers can be quick to throw in the towel when things aren’t going according to plan. Perhaps a block tower just won’t stand tall or an apple drawn on a paper doesn’t quite match the one created in the mind. When tasks are difficult or frustrating, it’s easier to quit than to persevere and overcome the challenge. Emotions run high in the preschool crowd. Their bodies and brains are changing at a rapid pace, and they confront new and exciting information throughout each day. It’s a lot to process.
The good news is that little kids can develop a growth mindset and learn to embrace challenges. Kids can actually learn to love the process of working through difficult tasks instead of putting all of their emotional energy into the final outcome.
When kids have a fixed mindset, they believe that they are either born smart or not—that they either have talent or don’t. In other words, they don’t see the possibility of growth and change. Kids who have a growth mindset believe that they can overcome challenges and learn new things as a result. This is an essential tool for young children, as they are likely to confront new challenges and information each day.
Parents can help kids develop a growth mindset. Try a few of these strategies to help your child become a “can-do” kid:
Talk about the brain. Teaching kids about the human brain helps with more than just growth mindset. When kids understand how the brain works, they are better able to understand their emotions and work through moments of worry and frustration.
Tell your kids that the brain is like a muscle. It is always growing and changing, and the more you challenge it, the stronger it gets. If you run away from hard things, the brain won’t learn that new thing. If you keep trying, the brain will grow and develop new problem-solving strategies.
Practice the art of self-talk. Self-talk is another essential tool for young children. When kids learn how to use self-talk, they can quell worries and other intrusive thoughts. They can also learn to overcome negative automatic thoughts that tend to accompany a fixed mindset.
Make a list of the negative thoughts you hear from your child and ask your child to think of positive counterstatements. For example, if your child often says, “I just can’t do this,” a counterstatement might be “This is hard and will take time, but I can figure it out.” Similarly, you can counter phrases like “I always make mistakes” with “Mistakes help me learn new things.”
Create your own self-talk poster with negative thoughts on one side and positive replacements on the other. Practice daily (preferably when your child is calm).
Embrace imperfections. Little kids can be big-time perfectionists. Sometimes one little error results in a 45-minute meltdown that would send even the most calm among us running for cover. Parents tend to run in for the save in these instances, but fixing the situation to preserve the illusion of perfection (or to avoid a meltdown) only intensifies the need for perfection.
Instead, embrace imperfection in your home. Talk about your own imperfections and what you learn from them. Celebrate your mistakes. Don’t just normalize the concept of human error; make it a frequent topic of discussion!
Teach your kids to seek knowledge, not approval. This sounds like a hard one, I know. We all want to scoop our kids up and smother them in kisses when they come to us with their greatest works of art, especially when they’re little. Try some version of this sometime: “Wow, I really love the color of that pumpkin you painted. How did you make that color? What is your favorite part of the painting?”
When we reframe our own thoughts and ask questions instead of providing automatic approval every single time, our kids learn to consider the process instead of looking for that praise.
View challenges as opportunities. When challenges are viewed as fun opportunities, kids learn to take healthy risks. Consider creating an opportunity list in your home. Have each family member think of something challenging that they want to try (this can range from kicking a soccer ball to hiking a mountain) and add it to the list. Make sure to add opportunities of varying degrees of difficulty (think trying a new recipe or building a tower with thirty blocks) so that there’s something for everyone. Have each family member choose one task each week and report on it.
It’s important that you participate. One of the difficult parts of parenting is that we are always on. No matter what we do or what is happening, little ears are listening and little eyes are watching, and they learn a lot from us.
Above all, it’s important to focus on the steps kids take toward learning new things instead of the final result. When kids learn that growth occurs over time and they have the power to expand their learning as they grow, they stop worrying about failure and adopt a “can-do” spirit instead.