Persistence is the desire to have an impact on the world, and the determination to act on that desire. While children are born with a motivation to explore and learn, persistence helps them accomplish their goals. Following are examples of how persistence develops in the first three years:
A 6-week-old smiles at her mother. Her mother smiles back and gives her a kiss. The baby smiles again and receives another smile and kiss in return. This baby is learning that she has the power to impact her world and receive a positive, loving response from another person.
A 9-month-old drops his spoon over the side of his high chair. He laughs at the clatter it makes and is thrilled when his older brother reaches down and returns it to him. He promptly throws it back on the floor as he and his brother laugh at this silly game. This baby is learning that he can make a loud noise, create a fun game, get someone to act on his behalf, and make this special someone laugh.
An 18-month-old lifts a marker to the wall—he has a huge, wide open space to decorate. After only a few minutes, his mother swoops down and grabs the marker from his hand. She looks angry and talks to him in a stern voice. This toddler is learning that sometimes his goals don’t please the people he loves. It is the beginning of learning about appropriate behavior, and making wise choices about his actions that will continue as he grows.
A 2-year-old carefully stacks one block on top of another to make a tower. He experiments with which blocks form the most solid base and considers how best to balance the blocks as the tower gets taller. This toddler is learning what steps are involved in making his goal a reality through careful planning and persistence.
Here are some ideas for nurturing your child’s persistence:
Ask children thoughtful questions to help them solve problems on their own: “What do you think you need to do in order to get this lid to fit on this pot?” This helps your child use logical thinking skills and his persistence to reach a goal.
Point out how children’s actions helped them achieve a goal. Notice the steps involved in achieving a goal. (And try to avoid only praising successes.) “I saw how carefully you balanced the blocks on top of one another. You made a strong base for your tower. Good thinking. It fell over when you put the triangle block on top, but I bet you can build it again.”
Support your child in his attempts to master new skills. It’s great that your child is motivated to try new things on his own. Keep in mind that doing something for your child that he can and wants to do himself can take away his initiative. So, even if they don't match, let your toddler pick out his own clothes. Put a plastic mat under the high chair to catch the "fall-out", but let your older baby feed himself. Let your child know that you’re proud of him for trying hard by noticing his efforts: "You got your shirt off all by yourself. That was hard work." Mastering the skill of persistence nurtures feelings of self-confidence and independence. If your child gets frustrated and starts to give up, you can offer suggestions or assistance so he can eventually do it on his own.
Encourage your child to try new tasks. Watch her to see what she seems ready to tackle. If your 18-month-old raises her hands for you to pull off her shirt, ask her if she'd like to try and take it off herself. If she has been taking your hand to put the puzzle pieces in, challenge her to try placing them herself. Tell her it may take a few tries, but you believe she can do it. Just be sure your expectations are age-appropriate. When you ask your child to do something she is not ready to do developmentally, she may experience feelings of failure or incompetence; this may make her reluctant to try new things. Instead, offer your child lots of opportunities to feel successful by offering small, achievable challenges. If your child is more hesitant or cautious, break up more difficult tasks into manageable parts.
Model persistence. Let your child see you attempting new things and persisting even when the task becomes difficult or frustrating. Share the thinking process with her. "Boy, putting this new toy together is really hard. I’m feeling pretty frustrated. I even feel like giving up. But instead I think I’ll slow down and do it one step at a time."
It’s okay to let your child make mistakes or fall short of her goal. If she’s not distressed by it, she may just move onto something else. But, if your child finds herself challenged by an activity and becomes extremely frustrated and distressed, she may not be able to figure it out on her own. You may need to give her permission to stop the activity. You can suggest she take a break and try again at a later time. You can support her and recognize her effort by saying: "You worked on that puzzle for a long time. It was really hard and not being able to do it right away made you feel bad. Sometimes it’s good to stop for awhile. You can always try again another time." It is critical that your child doesn’t sense you are disappointed, because this will communicate that pleasing you, rather than herself, is what is important. When she is ready to start again, sit down with her and give her some pointers or guidance to get her moving toward a solution.