Perhaps author Daniel Coyle would agree with me. In his book, The Talent Code, he asserts that struggle helps us perform better and that one of the best ways we learn is by doing and practicing what it is we’re trying to learn. After all, we tend to learn a language better by speaking than by reading all the grammar and translation books. We score better on tests when we take practice tests than simply studying for the same amount of time. And kids learn to walk, talk, run and play by doing said activities.
So why do we parents often step in at the smallest sign of struggle? For one, it’s awkward to watch kids go through a challenge. In Dumbing Down Our Kids, author Charles J. Sykes recalled a time when he visited a Japanese classroom where students were working on math problems on the board. One boy in particular was stuck on a problem for forty-five minutes, and Sykes himself felt awkward watching him make mistake after mistake. Yet the other students and the teacher didn’t seem to mind and understood that that time is one for learning, not a time for anyone else to jump in. They knew that the boy would learn best by working through the problem rather than simply being shown the correct answer.
Another reason we tend to jump in when kids struggle is that we want to protect them from the potential frustration of not being able to figure out a problem. For any parent who has ever gone through a fussy day with their kid (ahem: all of us), the last thing we need is yet another instigator that might lead to a full-blown hissy-fit. And so we try to make nice and placate our kids to keep them from going down the monstrous path.
But then I realized that I was basing my actions on assumptions, and that my toddler hardly throws a fit when he can’t figure it out. Instead, he’ll usually ask for help when he realizes that the problem is beyond his ability. Nowadays, I wait for him to tell me that he needs help rather than assuming that he does to begin with.
And lastly, we parents tend to shield our kids from struggle because we feel that the problem may not be developmentally aligned with their age and abilities just yet. This is actually why I started closing my toddler’s box for him; I didn’t think he would even be able to do this on his own. And I may have been correct; he probably wasn’t able to slip the cover in on the first try.
Yet I should have let him try, even from the get go, if only to establish an encouraging environment for him. Even though the chances of him closing the box may not have been that high at such a young age, I could have still used the same supportive language while he tried to master the skill: “Looks like you’re trying to close the box. That’s right… you’ve got a good grip on it. What should you do next?” Even if the most he can do is hold the plastic cover, at least he knows I encourage practice and believe that he’ll eventually close that darn box.
I’ve since been more mindful about allowing my toddler to struggle on his own a bit. We can help them find the zone where the activity is challenging enough that they’ll remain engaged, but not so challenging as to prove impossible. Rather than seeing the episode as something to skip over—a time for an adult to step in and do it the right way—I see struggle as a chance for kids to practice and learn. They’ll hardly master anything on the first try, but we’ve got to give them the opportunity to try at all.
Have you stepped in too quickly when your kids struggled? Do you let your kids struggle?