My two-year-old and I were in the car a few days ago, listening to a song with whistling. “Can you whistle?” he requested, wanting me to whistle along to the song, to which I happily obliged. Unfortunately, my whistling was a bit on the soft side since he asked again, “Can you whistle?” Apparently the song’s whistler was louder than me, so I explained to him, “I actually was whistling. I can’t really whistle that well, which is probably why you couldn’t hear me.” And there I heard myself say the self-defeating words: “I can’t…”

Don't say "I can't": Encouraging effort with kidsIn saying what I did, the message I was inadvertently conveying was, “I’m not inherently good at this,” or “I’m not able to whistle.” Maybe this is the truth: I can barely whistle on tune, much less belt out a piercing, whistle-to-the-song session. But I didn’t want my kid to think that I’m stuck with this predicament. I quickly changed my language and followed up with, “I could whistle better; I just need to practice whistling more if I want to whistle louder.”

Now my whistling abilities has more to do with my own efforts (or lack thereof) as opposed to an ingrained incompetence I may have.

We all have propensities—certain people have physical traits that lend themselves to excel at sports, for instance. But whether a person is endowed with an edge or not, greatness tends to come from sheer effort, so that effort plus passion often lead to amazing talent and results.

For instance, I can already discern some gifts in my kid that may very well have been part of his DNA. All the same, I’d like to think that his own efforts and passion derived from intense focus has helped him further his skills than had he done little about it.

Conversely, I want him to believe that he can do almost anything with hard work. You see, I used to think that I was terrible at math. I probably don’t “get math” in the same way a math wiz would, so I just accepted this as fact and therefore performed accordingly. All the way up to college, in fact, practically costing me three near fails in two Calculus classes and one Economics class. I knew I needed to change my attitude in addition to putting in more hours to master this stuff, and eventually learned that aptitude in math isn’t established for life.

Just like any other muscle in the body, the brain can be exercised to earn A’s in math, learn a new language or master a difficult skill. Barring extreme cases, I truly believe there is no such thing as an A-student, B-student and such; just A-effort and B-effort, and so forth. I want my kid to believe that he can almost always work hard and keep improving.

Because sure, we can absolutely accept our levels of mastery: for instance, there’s a reason I don’t whistle that great—it’s because I could care less about being the best whistler. But I’d rather my kid know that my whistling ability has more to do with my own efforts than something that I can’t change.

How do you encourage effort with your kids? Have you ever found yourself limiting your abilities based on preconceived notions?

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