Foster Determination

Inspired by the book The Family Virtues Guide, I am looking at one virtue each month or so, and giving some thoughts on how we can foster that virtue in the children we care for.

Research is showing again and again that it is determination, rather than intelligence or talent, that determines whether people succeed or fail. One of the most important researchers in this arena is Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset (check out the website). I’ve seen Dweck quoted in many books I’ve loved, most notably Raising Happiness by Christine Carter, Nurture Shock by Po Bronson, and The Talent Myth by Malcolm Gladwell. One of Dweck’s most famous studies was with elementary-school aged children in which she gave all of the children a test that they did well on. The students were then given one sentence of praise: either “you must be smart at this,” or “you must have worked really hard.” The children who were praised for their intelligence were markedly less likely to choose difficult tasks afterward (it might show that they weren’t smart after all), and when asked to write to students at another school about the tests, they tended to inflate their test scores. The children who were praised for their effort stuck with the tasks for much longer, and reported much higher enjoyment of the tasks. Many other studies have backed up these findings as well.

So, what can we do to foster determination in our kids? Clearly, one of the first things is to praise them for their effort, rather than for just “being good” at something, or even worse, being “smart.” Check out the article on the Joyful Toddlers Facebook Page “The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids.” Very fascinating.

Another thing, which feels a little harder, is not to jump in to help too quickly when a child is having a hard time with something. Instead, give them some verbal encouragement: “You can do it!” Often, when I know a kid really can do something with a little more effort, I’ll tell them, “I bet you can do it. I’ll watch!” Having me watch while they up their effort calls out the best in kids, and they often discover they can do more than they knew. Afterward I’ll often say proudly, “Wow, that was hard, but you worked and worked, and you did it!”

Even if it’s something you know they can’t do, don’t jump in too soon. Even at 18 months of age, it’s good to let kids deal with their own frustration for a little bit, and see if they can sort things out for themselves. When they can’t, we can teach them how to ask for help in a way that makes people want to help them. When I hear a shriek of frustration at Rainbow Bridge I have a range of responses. If the child is under two, or new, I’ll simply cue them: “You can say, ‘help please!’” and then I help them, whether they repeat it or not. If they’re two and verbal, I’ll cue them, and wait for them to voice their request. If they’re three or older, and I hear a shriek or moan of frustration, I’ll say, “Wow, you’re having a hard time. Why don’t you ask for some help?” Most of the kids can calm themselves enough to respond, “Will you help me, please?”

And sometimes, it’s ok to let our kids fail at things. In fact, Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness, puts it even more strongly: “If we intervene when our kids are on the brink of making a mistake—preventing the mishap or just making things easier for them—we send the message that we think they are incapable in some way or that failing would be too traumatic. We need to protect our kids not from failure but from a life void of failure.” (Raising Happiness, p.58).

Another thing I’ll do, which is indirectly related to determination, is that if a child asks me for help, I’ll first look around and see what other resources they have. I’ll suggest a tool they might use, or another child they could ask for help instead of me: “Why don’t you ask Michael for help?” I’ll suggest.

And finally, a last suggestion from Carol Dweck: When kids do something quickly and perfectly, she recommends saying: “Whoops! I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!” (quoted in Raising Happiness, p. 57).

I’d welcome comments from anyone on your experiences helping your kids develop determination. What’s worked well? What’s been challenging?

Miss Faith


  1. Faith,

    This a great article–full of cogent insight about the importance of failure and how to be modest with praise. And I love all the resources you included.
    Fostering determination reminds me of how Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn talk about children's need for sovereignty in their book Everyday Blessings. Also Natalie Goldberg talks a lot about why we need failure in her book The Great Failure.

    keep the insights rolling,


  2. Faith –

    I love the idea of celebrating the effort vs the end result. I have been focusing on that with Quinn and Wren and love to see their faces light up with pride! I do have a challenge with Wren (4 1/2) who will try to take off something with a difficult zipper or get stuck with the neck hole on her head and she will scream in frustration and start writhing about….I say "wow you seem frustrated – can I help you?". I know she is stuck – but I think she knows that before it is happening…and is grouchy about accepting help. I think this is about wanting attention but how can I encourage her to address this is a more positive light? About the process of successfully asking for help?

    Pondering and wondering – Lisa

  3. Hi Lisa,

    If this is has become a pattern, try breaking it up with humor. If she's stuck with the neck hole and starts writing around, you could mock-yell, "Oh no, you're stuck! You're stuck! Don't worry, I'll call the fire department! Don't worry, honey! Those firemen will come and chop you out with an ax! Quick! Let me get the phone!" This might take her mind off her frustration and make her laugh, after which she might be able to approach it in a new way.

    Or, if she's trying with the zipper, you could shake your head very, very sadly and say, "Well, it looks like you'll have to wear that jacket forever now. What a shame, living in your jacket. Do you think your nightgown will fit over top of it?" Hold your hands to your face and really ham it up. Then, if she gets it herself, act completely shocked. "What??? You got it yourself??? How did you do you that?! You're not going to have to live in it after all??" This type of humor allows her to be the strong, competent one, and solve her problems herself, instead of having you be the strong competent one and just waiting to do it for her. Does that make sense?

    And, if this seems to be working but you can't drum up the energy for humor every time, instead of saying "can I help you?" try saying, "what will you do?" in a genuinely interested and slightly puzzled way. She might be less grouchy about accepting help if asking for it is her idea instead of yours.

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