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As a parent it can be difficult to take a step back and let your child struggle with something. But if we are too quick to jump in and fix all of the problems our children experience, how are they ever going to develop the skills required to to become independent, successful adults? Below is a chapter from the book ‘Children aren’t made of China’ written by Wilson McCaskill. He outlines some tips on what to do to assist children to develop perseverance.

Chapter 4 Perseverance – Let children deal with discomfort.

When working with children, I talk about being able to “hang in there.” This is an expression they understand and is part of our everyday language.

For children to develop perseverance, they need to be challenged by things that make them want to give up. This means that teachers, parents and facilitators have to let children deal with discomfort. That may sound easy but it’s not.

We have all been well conditioned by the self-esteem movement to step in quickly and save children from physical and emotional discomfort.

We fear we will appear hard, uncaring or even cruel if we don’t step in. Given small signals by children that they are suffering, we jump in and save them. Saving them can be by encouragement before they’ve had a chance to spur themselves on or be spurred on by their peers. It can also be by a supportive remark like, it’s alright, don’t worry about it. It can also be by ending the challenge or situation the child is finding difficult.

On may occasions I’ve watched children being weakened by well-intentioned adults. The child is finding things difficult and their discomfort is tangible. They want help, a comforting remark. They want the problem to disappear, to be taken away. Their behaviour changes and their shoulders droop. They make some self-derisive remark like, “I’m useless,” or “I’ve never been able to do this,” and they give you a look that says, “Help or I’ll quit.” They want help the question is , do they need it?

In my experience, most of us step in too early or when we don’t need to. We say too much too soon and do too much too quickly. When we do, we are simply telling the child we didn’t believe they could hang in there themselves.

By stepping in we think we’re telling them we care. But that’s a message we don’t have to send because most children know we do. The sum total of our daily, weekly yearly words and actions have convinced them of that and we should trust that we don’t have to keep repeating the message. The more important message is that we believe in their strength and their ability to hang in there unsupported.

The hardest thing is to say nothing and to do little. Observe keenly what they’re going through. Let your face be calm and your eyes carry strength and the expectation that they will continue to try.  And if they do, don’t explode with enthusiastic praise. By doing so you seem surprised, which only makes them realise you didn’t really think they could do it in the first place. Offer warranted and specific praise, but keep surprise out of if.

Should you say something if they don’t persevere?

Sometimes yes sometimes no. Sometimes it’s best to let them sit in the discomfort of their feelings. Giving them the chance to really feel the hurt and disappointment helps them to decide they don’t want those feelings and that they can do something about it.

At other times, we should remind them that every challenge, every obstacle simply helps them to understand themselves. Perseverance takes courage and inner strength and that’s the bit they have to work on. By walking away, they end the situation and temporarily change their feelings, but by staying and changing the situation, they can end the feelings. They need to know they can go from feeling helpless to being in control.

The most important thing is not to respond to your impulses without thinking. Invariably your impluse is to step in. Take a second or two to question that. Make your decision based on your observations and not on the mistaken notion that you must protect their self-esteem by sparing them for bad feelings.

A word of warning: The challenges given to children must be achievable provided they make an effort. challenge way beyond their skills will make them feel helpless and depressed by one that is just within their skills, will develop their perseverance and reward them with and empowering sense achievement.

Many of the PLAY IS THE WAY games toss children into situations where they fail many times before achieving success. By playing these games they learn to persevere at something they are enjoying. This prepares them to persevere at the things they may enjoy less or not at all.

I’m sure that the fascination of computer games is that they ask children to persevere and master a level, before they can move on. Of course the game is enjoyable and therefore the incentive to  persevere is greater. Nevertheless, the computer is totally unbiased and offers no support, only the right to move on if you’ve worked hard,  persevered and mastered the level.

I’m not suggesting we should be harsh on our children. I find harshness destructive. Those who choose to be harsh often see themselves as the boos, and hence superior. Wellbeing suffers in a harsh climate an those who play the boss play judge as well.

Children uncomfortable with this power imbalance and react negatively to it. It is far better to be a guide, leading children to make discoveries about themselves, others and the world in which they live.

Guides want children to be independent and have self-control. Bosses want children to be dependent and in their control. Guides are observant and pay attention to children​in their care. Guides understand that children learn self-control through self-awareness and that the keen observation of children makes them attentive to themselves.