Five Tips for Teaching Kids the Value of Hard Work and Determination

“We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” -Thomas Edison

Experts now say that teaching kids the value of hard work and determination is more important than building self-esteem, and the skill of perseverance is essential to a child’s social emotional development. But how do we develop in our children, our students, and our family the belief that hard work is essential, especially in a world where things come to us, and our kids, so easy?  Back when you had to milk a cow to eat your cereal, hard work was built into life. Now, if Google doesn’t solve a problem in less than five seconds, we’re grumpy.  Here are five tips for parents and teachers that will teach kids how to develop perseverance and determination:

As a teacher and a parent, I’m always in the middle of the debate on whether to push kids toward their dreams or help them live in reality. Right now, my own young sons want to be either movie stars or astronauts. Well, NASA’s shutting down its astronaut program and we don’t live in L.A. So what do I say? Do I crush their hopes or build in them a false sense that “they can do anything”? My students at the Juvenile Detention Center are all hoping to be hip-hop artists or football stars. These are big dreams. What do we say as parents and teachers? Forget it, kid? I skip the debate by going right to the truth: you can do almost anything, if you’re willing to work really, really hard at it. That’s what matters, and that’s what we should teach our kids. If they are willing to work very hard, with single-minded determination, they can accomplish what they want. And this skill can be taught.  Here are some tips for parents and teachers.

1. Praise the effort more than the accomplishment. Things come naturally to some kids, so you have to be careful as a parent or teacher about what you are praising. One kid might sail across the monkey bars on his first try, while another has to work at it for a year before she barely makes it across. The praise should be given to the hard worker who did not give up. The kid who sails across the bars should be challenged to do something harder. If something comes naturally to a kid, that’s great. It doesn’t mean they should get a gold star for it. To paraphrase Barry Switzer, you don’t want kids who are born on third base growing up their whole life thinking they hit a triple. My oldest son is brainy and my middle is more athletic. So we praise the middle for all the blood, sweat, and tears he puts into his mostly correct math homework, and the oldest for how hard he has had to work to finally catch a football. Unfortunately, in society, we often do the opposite. We over praise the naturally gifted and forget to encourage the hard worker. All kids have both things in them (skills that come easy and skills they have to work at). If you only praise those skills that come quick and natural, then even the most gifted person won’t learn to work hard at those skills that don’t come easy. The world is full of genius couch potatoes and people with average IQs who have millions in the bank. The essential factor is not often brains but perseverance.

2. Put kids in difficult but doable situations, and don’t help them too much. Encourage them to keep working even in the face of mild frustration. And teach them to take breaks, refresh, and try again. My boys recently got Ripsticks as a gift, which is some kind of torture device that looks like a skateboard but instead has two caster-like wheels screwed to the bottom. On first go, it appeared to me, and them, to be completely and totally impossible. I waved my fist in the air and cursed the makers of this awful toy which was about to ruin my sons’ birthdays. In fact, day one was torture for both of them. But they kept at it. They knew other kids who could do it. They pushed themselves and tried again. Day two, we did some research and got an expert (an older neighbor) to help them out. Still, day two felt pretty close to torture. At one point, my oldest son had regressed to the state of a three-years-old and was kicking rocks and throwing a tantrum. My wife and I helped him handle his frustration, take a break, and try again later. Slowly, after a week, they started getting it. The look on their face was golden. The lesson in hard work and determination was priceless. Thank you, you evil maker of the Ripstick.

It’s amazing how quickly kids learn what they’re good at and what they are not. And of course, they naturally want to keep doing what they’re good at. Our job is to get them involved in things that they are not good at, or at least struggle with, and encourage them to practice and get better. Music lessons are great for teaching long-term hard work and determination. Sports also do this. So does school. Hug a teacher for teaching your kids all the stuff you would not have the patience to teach them.

3. Modeling, of course, is always important. Like any skill you want your kids to have, you need to demonstrate it in your own life. If your kids see or hear you give up on something because it is too hard, they’ll be more likely to share that attitude. For your own sake and theirs, do something difficult, something that takes hard work and determination. Let them see your frustration, see how you re-energize and try again: train for a marathon, lose some weight, learn a new skill, finish a difficult task like redoing a bathroom or building a piece of furniture. I recently started doing a form of karate with my boys. We had to stand in a row based on our rank, so they got to see their dad stand in a line where he had to bow to a bunch of six-year-olds who out-ranked him by two belts. They watched me make a fool of myself trying to jump kick a pad and barely break a “beginner’s” board. I’ll never recover from the humiliation, but hopefully they learned something.

4. Read and tell stories of people who worked very hard to acquire skills and accomplish great feats. Read about people like Thomas Edison, who failed a thousand times to discover the light bulb; or Michael Jordan, who got cut from his high school basketball team; or Abraham Lincoln, who failed twice at business and lost more elections than he won.

5. Teach kids to recover and grow from failure. Again, model your own failures (no, don’t hide them) and show them how you learn from failure, how you tried again. Even little things, like plumbing disasters and cooking mistakes you’ve made.  Show your children how you don’t quit; how you try again. When you’re kids fail, help them turn those feelings into a time to ask questions and get better.

And if all else fails, get yourself a Ripstick. After a few days of watching my kids struggle and finally succeed, I tried ripsticking myself. I ended up throwing a tantrum.
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    1. Thanks Terri. Sounds like you’ve got a lot of action in your world with three boys. My kids are 9, 7, and 4, though the last one is a girl, and it is amazing how different the energy can feel sometimes. All the best, Andy.


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