Test­ing the lim­its

New re­search shows we can teach our chil­dren to be tena­cious from an early age, writes Jonathan deBurca But­ler

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Parenting -

THERE is not a day goes by that we don’t see or hear an item re­lat­ing to Gen­er­a­tion Snowflake and its lack of grit. The oft (and un­fairly) crit­i­cised group, also known as Mil­len­ni­als, are, ac­cord­ing to some, a lost gen­er­a­tion when it comes to back­bone. So what hope for the fu­ture?

Ac­cord­ing to new re­search from the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, we can teach our chil­dren to be tena­cious from an early age. Re­searchers at the in­sti­tute con­ducted ex­per­i­ments with 262 chil­dren aged 13 to 18 months.

The ex­per­i­ments con­sisted of two groups of chil­dren first watch­ing a re­searcher re­move a rub­ber frog from a clear plas­tic con­tainer and then un­hook­ing a key­chain from a metal ring.

For one group, the re­searcher suc­ceeded af­ter 30 sec­onds of ap­pear­ing to strug­gle with the task. For the other, suc­cess came eas­ily and af­ter just 10 sec­onds.

In both cases, the re­searcher nar­rated the task and in­ter­acted with the child, but did so more for some than for oth­ers.

Af­ter see­ing the adult solve the chal­lenges, the ba­bies were shown that a felt-cov­ered box could play mu­sic and were en­cour­aged to turn the mu­sic on. The box had an at­trac­tive and large red but­ton which was, of course, in­ac­tive. The re­searchers wanted to find out how long the chil­dren would per­sist in push­ing the but­ton be­fore giv­ing up.

It turned out that chil­dren con­sis­tently pressed the but­ton more of­ten if they’d seen the re­searcher strug­gle than if she had solved her tasks eas­ily — 23 times as op­posed to 12.

In­ter­est­ingly, chil­dren were more likely to try harder if the re­searcher had ac­tively en­gaged the child while do­ing the ini­tial adult-only tasks. The re­searchers con­cluded that eye con­tact, us­ing the child’s name, and adopt­ing a high-pitched voice led to bet­ter re- sults when the child came to do their own task.

While re­searchers stressed that the study was in­com­pre­hen­sive, they did sug­gest that young ba­bies could per­haps “learn the value of ef­fort from just a cou­ple of ex­am­ples”.

“Ba­bies may not be able to tell us much but they are tak­ing in so much,” says Deirdre Mur­ray, con­sul­tant pae­di­a­tri­cian and se­nior lec­turer in the Depart­ment of Pae­di­atrics and Child Health, Univer­sity Col­lege Cork. “Your brain is de­vel­op­ing rapidly in those first three years and a lot of your con­nec­tions, your white mat­ter, isn’t formed. It forms in those cou­ple of years and so your en­vi­ron­ment, what you’re ex­posed to has a huge ef­fect on your devel­op­ment and the more we can talk to ba­bies and en­gage with them the more they learn.”

Watch­ing oth­ers be­ing per­sis­tent is “only one con­trib­u­tor of ac­tu­ally ac­quir­ing per­sis­tence as a skill”, says Michelle Downes, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in de­vel­op­men­tal neu­ropsy­chol­ogy at Univer­sity Col­lege Dublin. “What’s great about this re­search is that it shows that other fac­tors such as en­cour­age­ment for ef­fort and com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the im­por­tance of per­sis­tence are im­por­tant too.”

Downes says that per­sis­tence in in­fants is one early in­di­ca­tor of longterm ex­ec­u­tive func­tion skills — an um­brella term for a col­lec­tion of higher-or­der skills such as at­ten­tion con­trol, work­ing mem­ory, and de­ci­sion mak­ing.

“Ex­ec­u­tive func­tion­ing is more im­por­tant than IQ,” says Downes. “In terms of an in­di­vid­ual child’s school readi­ness and aca­demic achieve­ment as well as other im­por­tant ev­ery­day fac­tors such as so­cial func­tion­ing.”

It would seem, there­fore, that be­ing dogged, per­sis­tent, or maybe even a lit­tle pig-headed might get you a long way in life, but what of the the tra­di­tional the­ory that says if it’s it not in you, it’s just not in you? What if be­ing tena­cious is just not in your DNA?

“It turns out that whether we view

If we be­lieve that a par­tic­u­lar skill or char­ac­ter­is­tic such as tenac­ity is in­born then we think there’s noth­ing we can do about it. But we re­ally need to be care­ful not to put a ceil­ing on chil­dren’s po­ten­tial by stereo­typ­ing them too early

th­ese skills as in­her­ent or learnt has be­come a bit of a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy,” says Dr Deirdre MacIn­tyre, clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and found­ing direc­tor of In­sti­tute of Child Ed­u­ca­tion and Psy­chol­ogy Europe.

“If we be­lieve that a par­tic­u­lar skill or char­ac­ter­is­tic such as tenac­ity is in­born then we think there’s noth­ing we can do about it. But we re­ally need to be care­ful not to put a ceil­ing on chil­dren’s po­ten­tial by box­ing them in or by stereo­typ­ing them too early.”

As an ex­am­ple, MacIn­tyre points out that years ago we had very limited ex­pec­ta­tions of what chil­dren with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties could do and how we treated them was an em­bar­rass­ing re­flec­tion of that at­ti­tude.

“Now we know that once we put the right sup­ports in place — and higher ex­pec­ta­tions — we can see how much can be learnt,” she says. “We need to think of abil­ity as more like a mus­cle that grows and needs ex­er­cise and that in turn will breed per­se­ver­ance.”

MacIn­tyre, like Downes, also stresses the im­por­tance of pow­er­ful in­ter­ac­tion where the mother or fa­ther is show­ing and prac­tis­ing per­sis­tence, dis­play­ing that it’s OK to fail and is prac­tis­ing en­cour­age­ment out loud. How and what you en­cour­age is the key to help­ing with strength of char­ac­ter.

“It’s not a ques­tion of over or un­der prais­ing re­ally but what you praise,” she says. “So telling a lit­tle girl ‘she’s great for do­ing your home­work’ is per­fect but not re­ally ‘you’re so clever’ be­cause it’s the ef­fort you want to praise rather than the out­come. You’re prais­ing the be­hav­iour you want rather than an in­nate qual­ity as such.”

MacIn­tyre of­fers a word of cau­tion to par­ents who may take this ad­vice as a li­cence to push their chil­dren too far.

“A Ger­man psy­chol­o­gist, Tom Sen­ninger, talks about the three dif­fer­ent zones of learn­ing,” she says. “The stretch zone, the com­fort zone, and the panic zone, and you don’t want peo­ple to be work­ing in the panic zone where they are way out of their depth or very un­com­fort­able with the level of chal­lenge they’re fac­ing — so you want them in the stretch zone, where’s there’s a bit of fail­ure that they can tol­er­ate, where they have to make a bit of ef­fort be­cause that’s how we learn. We ac­tu­ally don’t learn, even as adults, when ev­ery­thing is go­ing smoothly for us.”

So it seems the age-old adage is spot on: If at first you don’t suc­ceed, try, try again... just know when to quit.

Pic­ture: iStock

PLAY­ING WITH PO­TEN­TIAL: A child’s abil­ity is like a mus­cle that needs ex­er­cise to grow and par­ents play a key role in show­ing and prac­tis­ing per­sis­tence.

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