Using challenges to teach endurance

Originally published in Bell County Family Magazine

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  Who hasn’t heard those words from a parent or coach (and rolled your eyes)?  Few great things in life are achieved without a lot of perseverance and practice.  Sure, Mozart was a piano virtuoso at age five, but most of us aren’t Mozart.  Most of us, including our children, need more than a few opportunities to succeed at almost anything.  So, as parents, are we teaching our children to keep trying or to give up?

I thought about this a few weeks ago when our family went on a hike.  It was a short hike, about 3 or 4 miles, over mostly flat and smooth terrain.  Two of my daughters rode their bikes.  Our seven-year-old, who has never shown much of an interest in sweating, quickly grew tired of pedaling.  First, she wanted to switch with her three-year-old sister in the stroller.  I explained that her bike was too big for her younger sister.  So, she pedaled a few hundred yards, then asked me to push her bike while she walked.  “No” was my definitive answer.  I realized this was a good teaching opportunity for her.

Now, I could have lectured her about the importance of endurance, blah, blah, blah.  But I didn’t.  Well, I might have lectured a little bit by referencing the scene from Finding Nemo.  Instead of “keep swimming”, I said “keep pedaling.”  I also walked next to her and helped push her along.  While the trail really was pretty flat, my hand on her back kept her momentum going.  After about two miles, she seemed to get a second wind and pedaled ahead of me to keep up with her older sister.  Maybe she was tired of hearing me talk, but regardless she finished the hike under her own power.  I promised her a double scoop of ice cream as a reward for overcoming great obstacles (to her).  Even without the ice cream reward, she was satisfied with herself for succeeding.

Maybe it’s the age because when she was a toddler, no piece of furniture was too high to be climbed.  Now, she sees many things as unconquerable.  If the going gets rough, she’s ready to bail out.  I can tell she’s thinking, “that word is 8 letters long, I can’t possibly sound it out.”  I help her break it down a few letters at a time and show her it’s always possible if you keep trying.

I use a multi-prong approach to encourage her to endure.  There is the pump-it-up line.  “You can do it.  Keep trying!”  Frankly, that starts getting on my nerves, and probably her’s too because it usually only makes her whine more.

Sometimes, I use the reverse psychology approach.  “Fine, if it’s too hard.  Just give up, and you can live with your sisters when you grow up.”  Apparently, that doesn’t sound too appealing because she usually picks up her pencil and starts working again.

A carrot-on-a-string enticement is always worth a shot.   “If you finish your homework in 30 minutes, you can have extra video time.”  For my seven-year-old, that only works about a quarter of the time.  She fails to understand the reward concept at the successful completion of a project.  Hopefully, that’s a maturity issue.

When all else fails, I use the no pain-no gain method.  “You see this room?  Visualize not eating lunch until it is cleaned.  Oh, and we’re having pizza (or whatever her current favorite meal is).”  That room can be spotless in five minutes when the pain is big enough.

Every child is different, of course.  I don’t like to use the same method each time one of my children encounters an obstacle.  It’s good to keep the kids guessing about what mom will do next.  Mysterious is my motto.  I also find that mixing and matching methods is useful.  So, one time it might be the carrot-on-a-string/no pain-no gain combo.  A reward and a threat all rolled into one.  Another time, I might employ the pump-it-up/reverse psychology methodology.  A little rah-rah-sys-boom-bah pairs nicely with unattractive consequences.

Ultimately, as a parent, I want to teach each of my daughters to have the confidence to keep trying.  To know she can succeed even when there are challenges.  I cheer her on, and I push her from behind at the same time.  When she fails, I pick her up, brush her off, and point her in the right direction again. When she succeeds, as she is bound to do if she keeps trying, we all celebrate.

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