This year my son started kindergarten and he is obsessed with the color-coded behavioral management system used in the classroom. Obsessed.
Maybe it is because we never really did behavior charts at home, so this is his first experience with something like that or maybe it is because it is a big deal in kindergarten.
Whatever, the reason, it is important to him. When I ask how his day went, the first thing he tells me is what color he is on. And if it is a color he deems “less good,” he says, “but I tried my best.”
I worry about his obsession with an extrinsic reward system such as this, something that research has shown is an approach that can backfire over time.
But I am heartened that the focus seems to be on doing his best.
I want my son to want to do well because it feels good to do well. Not because it is a certain color, a competition, or a reward.
I want him to have a sense of pride of accomplishment, whether its academics or behavior.
I also want him to understand that everyone has bad days and makes mistakes.
I want my son to be able to pull himself back up from failure and try again.
I want him to believe in himself.
Research suggests that there are several aspects that make-up the personality trait psychologists call cognitive hardiness. People with a hardy personality believe in themselves, they believe in their ability to affect the world around them, and they view failure or challenge as a chance to grow and learn.
5 Tips For Raising Internally Motivated Children
1. Make Room For Mistakes
It is important for children to not see failure as an endpoint, but rather as a beginning. A place from which to grow.
Viewing challenge ( e.g. failure, frustration, disappointment, hard times, obstacles) as an opportunity to learn, grow and become a stronger person, is a key part of having cognitive hardiness. Not only to survive stress or challenge but to thrive.
One study found that when children were angry (as opposed to happy or sad), they were more likely to use innovative and out of the box problem-solving strategies when faced with a challenging problem.
Negative emotions, especially frustration and anger, may serve to fuel motivation to accomplish, to persevere.
When your child is frustrated and wants to give up, encourage them to try again. To reset, have a do-over, rewind, to give it another go.
This is true when your child is upset as well — not just working on a tower of Legos. But when they make a mistake behaviorally — they act out or act impulsively to another child. After repairing the situation, have a do-over, “let’s try taking turns with that toy again.”
Being able to learn from your own mistakes, maybe even laugh at yourself, whether these mistakes happen in your work-life or social-life is a priceless life-skill.
“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”
― Carol S. Dweck, Developmental Psychologist
Researchers have found that adults with cognitive hardiness have less cardiovascular responsiveness to stress, better overall health, better mental well-being and are more likely to be transformational leaders.
2. Recognize When They Work Hard
When your child really tries — works hard at something and puts in a lot of effort — recognize it.
“Wow, I love this picture you drew for me! I can tell you really worked hard on it!”
Also, recognize when they themselves are proud. “I can see you are really proud of that story you wrote. You know why you are proud? Because you worked so hard on it! I am proud of you too.”
Young children think in a fixed mindset. They don’t naturally assume things can or will change. So, if you usually say things like, “you are so smart!” or “you are so good at math!” They will think that is just how they are. That it is their innate ability that is why they are good at math.
Then one day, they will get a math problem that doesn’t come easily to them. And they will believe that they just don’t have the ability to solve the math problem and they will give up without putting in much effort.
If, on the other hand, you consistently praise how hard they work and their effort, they will believe that they did well on the math because they worked at it. So, when they face that more challenging math problem, they will put in a lot of effort instead of giving up easily.
They will believe that with some effort, maybe a lot of effort, that they can solve the problem. They will have the belief that they can do it.
And, if it’s hard and they fail, they will try again.
This is a growth mindset.
In a study where parents praised effort (and not inherent characteristics/ability) at 14-38 months of age, their children were more likely to believe their ability was changeable, enjoy challenges, figure out ways to improve and attribute their success to hard work when they were 7 to 8 years old!
“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
― Peggy O’Mara
Give your child the gift of an inner voice that praises perseverance, hard work, and fosters their inner-belief that they can do it.
3. Break Down Big Goals
Sometimes, failure will happen over and over again. This is when kids need extra encouragement.
“Yes, I know you fell over, but you were able to ride longer than last time without your training wheels!”
Again, children tend to think in a fixed mindset and say to themselves, “If I can’t do it now then I’ll never be able to do it.”
When my son doesn’t like a food, he says, “Maybe I’ll like it when I’m older.”
When he was really young, I would praise him for trying the food and if he didn’t like it that was okay. But I would say things like, “maybe you’ll like it when you’re older. Your tastes change as you grow. I didn’t like asparagus when I was little, but now I love it!”
This is such a little thing — but it’s important. Knowing that they will change and grow. That their abilities will change and grow. And that practice and trying are the goal and that the achievement, while it may be the endpoint, it isn’t today’s goal.
The best way to help your kids learn this is to break down the goal — and recognize their progress.
Today we are going ride from our house to that mailbox on your bike.
This time, we are going to try one new food.
Today we will learn the first 5 sight words.
Learning to break down goals into manageable steps is a key life skill. I remember a psychology professor once said, don’t set yourself up for failure by setting huge goals. Just set a goal for today. I will exercise today. Maybe I will tomorrow, maybe not — but I will today.
“Encourage: transitive verb : to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope : hearten
— Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Setting small goals is how we build habits. It is also how we can teach our kids the importance of practicing and how we can give them the courage to try the really hard things again and again.
4. Celebrate Successes
Research shows that when praise is deeply sincere that it is beneficial for children’s motivation.
Praise has received a lot of bad press — and it is true that praising innate ability or over-praising is problematic.
But sincere and specific praise can enhance the pride a child has naturally:
“It was so kind of you to give your friend a turn with your toy. You had so much fun with her!”
“I am so glad you peed in the potty! Do you feel happy and proud? Let’s do a happy dance!”
“Wow, I love this drawing you did! I can see you really worked hard on it. I am going to hang in up in my office!”
As a parent, you want to enjoy and share in your child’s successes and that is what we should do!
But instead of focusing on the person or even the behavior, focus on their feelings (and your feelings) of internal joy.
That ultimately is what is truly rewarding. And your child is happy when you are proud.
Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort. — Franklin D. Roosevelt
Help them to recognize those feelings of pride, happiness, and satisfaction that come with hard work, good play, and trying at something over and over again.
5. Tell Your Child That They Are Good and Kind
We want our children to believe and know that they are good and kind.
They may make mistakes or bad choices, but that is how they act, not who they are. They may have failures and disappointments at school, but that is part of life, not who they are.
When you are praising your child’s character, this is a time when you can praise your child in a way that seems, “fixed.” But that is okay, because we want children to know that being kind and good is part of their identity.
Research has found that simply reminding children about times that they were kind in the past, boosted their generosity,“Remember how kind it was when you invited the new kid to sit at your lunch table?”
Research also suggests that children are more likely to make kindness a habit when they are praised for being kind, rather than doing something kind. For example, saying, “You are so good at including others” makes more of an impact on your child than saying, “That was a nice thing you did to include the new girl.”
When it comes to your child’s belief that they are good or not, you can and should praise their character.
Telling my son that he is kind, good, true, brave, and strong of heart will enhance those qualities in him and help him internalize those aspects of his identity.
Books On Growth Mindset, Perseverance, and Believing in Yourself
If you have followed my blog for awhile, you know I love using books to teach children about emotions, behaviors, and other life lessons. Here are some of our favorite books about having belief in yourself, perseverance, and a growth mindset.
I Can’t Do That, YET: Growth MindsetThe Girl Who Never Made MistakesThe Most Magnificent ThingThe Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple GrandinThe Book of MistakesAfter the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again)Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to BeThe Thing Lou Couldn’t DoBeautiful Oops!Peter Reynolds Creatrilogy Box Set (Dot, Ish, Sky Color)Whistle for WillieUnstoppable Me!: 10 Ways to Soar Through LifeRosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers