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Learning perseverance: New research shows the benefit of struggling in front of kids

Learning perseverance: New research shows the benefit of struggling in front of kids

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[Photo by Donnie Ray Jones via Flickr.]

How often do babies watch adults struggle at something? For many American families, it’s not very common – but a new study shows how important this observation might be for kids to develop their own sense of perseverance. 

The study, published last week in the journal Science, found that even one-year-old infants draw lessons from undirected demonstrations – and they themselves try harder when faced with an unrelated problem after watching adults struggle. 

At the MIT PlayLab at the Boston Children’s Museum, cognitive scientists did an experiment with 262 infants, aged 15 months. As the babies watched, one investigator tried to retrieve a toy from a container and detach some keys from a clip, narrating her efforts along the way. In front of half of babies, she succeeded at each task immediately. In front of others, she spent the same period struggling, and only retrieved the toy and keys just before the time ran out. 

The researcher then told the infants it was their turn to play with a toy. She then handed them a music box with a large – and useless – button on it. Pressing the button didn’t make anything happen, but the researchers watched how the babies responded. They found that infants who had watched an adult struggle prodded the button more often than those who had seen her succeed effortlessly. As the research team wrote, “Showing children that hard work works might encourage them to work hard too.” 

The study’s authors were quick to point out that they don’t know how much this can extend to other settings, said Jennifer Clegg, a psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, who was not involved in the new research. “It’s really worth noting that they were working with a high socio-economic-status sample,” Clegg told me. She added that much of the accumulated knowledge about child development comes from a skewed sample — generally the children of professors. This sample is no exception to that, so it’s hard to know how the results would play out in populations where role models are lacking. 

Clegg points out that in the U.S., children generally don’t see their parents struggle – not at their jobs, at least. “We have a separation between adult life and child life: children go to school or spend time with some kind of caretaker,” she said. And when children do get to interact with adults, in the U.S., it tends to be a very teacher-versus-learner setting.

“How often do we let children see us doing something we can’t achieve?” In other cultures, where children are not separated from the work life of adults, they have the opportunity to do much more observational learning, and children can see adults attempt to do things outside their skill level.

Watching adults struggle and ask for help may be important ways to learn those skills, said Clegg, who researches cultural learning in Vanuatu and Samoa, where children often see adults doing work. “If we don’t show our children situations where we are making the decisions where limits are, we might not be modeling that behavior,” she said. “We [in the U.S.] certainly value hard work ,but I think that we lose sight of the elements that go into hard work because we focus more on the results than the process.”

Clegg suggests there are many more research questions to be addressed, like how to give children of all ages insight into when we struggle — and whether or not conversations about struggle lead to persistence. Said Clegg: “It’s ripe for exploration.”

[Photo by Donnie Ray Jones via Flickr.]

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