Why You Should Let Your Kid Struggle
We could so relate to this post from blogger, former elementary school teacher and mom JoEllen Poon at CuppaCocoa.com, we had to share!
It was just another morning at Gymboree when my daughter got her chunky little leg caught between two dowels in the small wooden boat. No big deal. I stood off to the side and let her struggle to free her leg while offering encouraging comments, “Almost! Ooh, good try. You’ve got it! Keep trying!”
She didn’t cry out or complain — she just tried to pull her leg out this way and that. I watched her reposition herself as she tried to maneuver her way out. She nearly had it a few times, and I had to resist the urge to nudge her foot juuuust a little to help her out.
She continued to quietly work away at it, focused and concentrated. I continued to stand off to the side and watch. A few moments later, the Gymboree teacher was passing by, saw her predicament, and immediately leaned down to scoop her up. “Oh, you got stuck! Let me help you out –”
“Oh, no!” I cut in, from my perch on the side. “It’s okay, please don’t help her out. I want her to keep trying on her own. Thanks!”
The teacher looked surprised for a moment, then smiled and kneeled down in front of her and began to encourage her, “You can do it, sweetie! Ooh, almost!” I smiled. We continued to watch her struggle through it for another minute or so before I could tell she had twisted herself up into a really uncomfortable position, so I took her out.
We went about our business, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the teacher thought about me leaving her like that for so long. Did she think it was negligence at first? Did she stick around afterward because she was afraid I wouldn’t eventually help my daughter out? Was she just curious to see what would happen? I’m not sure. She remained smiling and warm throughout the day, so I like to think she didn’t think ill of me, but I couldn’t help but wonder.
It’s not the first time this has happened.
When my daughter first started eating puff cereal, I refrained from sticking the little O’s into her mouth. Instead, I let her struggle through picking each one up with her immature little pincer grasp and would giggle as she palmed it into her mouth.
When she kept missing as she tried to push the toy rings down onto the dowel, I resisted the urge to help position her hands or tilt the dowel.
I wanted her to fail, and to learn to be okay with it. I wanted her to miss, and to learn that that just meant she should try again. I wanted her to keep trying and to learn that eventually she’d get better.
And she did. Now she can grasp puffs like a pro and stack rings on a dowel in no time. She can climb in and out of boxes like a ninja (a chunky toddler ninja), and I’m sure she’ll continue to get better at maneuvering her way out when she gets herself stuck in a jam again. Sometimes, like at Gymboree, she’ll get really stuck and need my help out, but increasingly, she’ll figure out how to work her way out of a twisted situation and gain more confidence in her own ability to overcome obstacles.
I’m pleased not just because she has improved, but also because she is willing to persevere. Instead of growing quickly frustrated, as so many kids do when their first attempts don’t work, she stays focused and keeps at it. Instead of turning immediately for help, as so many kids learn to do, she keeps her eye on the prize and claps for herself when she finally accomplishes the task at hand. I smile and clap with her, “You did it! You kept working at it, and you figured it out! Good job!!”
It took a lot of training in the beginning. Training myself, that is. I had to hold my hands back from feeding her the cereal puffs. I had to glue my arms to my side to keep them from tilting the dowel in her favor. I helped her the first few times, but I also had to make a conscious decision to stop helping at some point, when I knew she had reached a point where she could do it herself.
Of course I do scaffold many processes to help her learn a lot of times. But once we’ve reached a stage where I know she has the ability to do it herself — given a little time and perseverance — then I try to get more hands off and let her buckle down and tackle it herself. It’s part of the apprenticeship process. It takes some trial and error to fine tune that sixth sense that tells you when they’re ready to go at it themselves, but the result is an increasingly confident and independent child.
A lot of the thinking behind this was inspired by Carol Dweck’s theory on Mindset. The idea is that learners who think they’re able to accomplish things just because they’re “smart” tend to give up more easily when they face a difficult task. They think they have some innate, fixed ability and that if they’re not able to accomplish something fairly easily, it must mean they don’t have what it takes to do it. On the other hand, learners who believe they’re able to accomplish things thanks to effort and persistence tend to push through challenges. They believe their success is due to hard work, and not so much to innate ability.
When I attended a talk by Salman Khan (of the Khan Academy) last summer at NASA, he shared a similar approach in raising his children. He told a story about how he let his son struggle through reading a word, and how his son then said to him, “Dad, aren’t you glad how I struggled with that word? I think I could feel my brain growing.” How precious! But also how telling. This shows that his son believed there was merit in the struggle. The struggle wasn’t a telltale sign that we are failing, as so many of us have come to believe. The struggle was actually an indicator that we are growing. I love it.
In our home, we also try to avoid telling our toddler that she is smart. It’s not that we don’t think she is, but we don’t want her to feel limited by a fixed trait such as “smartness.” We don’t want her to think that anytime she can’t easily accomplish something, it means she’s not smart enough. Instead, we always praise her for working hard, for persevering through a task, and for how she keeps trying.
It was a struggle for me to keep from intervening before, but now I enjoy sitting back and watching her work through something on her own. I love to observe what she’s learning, and how she’s adjusting to the situation. And I swear, sometimes I can see her brain growing.