I don’t often use four letter words, but when I do, you can bet it’s because I’m trying to figure out driving directions without a GPS (when my phone dies, naturally), attempting to assemble something with confusing instructions (which is every gift my children have ever received), or going for a run (a habit I take up every two years or so before remembering why I much prefer power-walking). In the midst of these challenges, I tend to get so frustrated that I nearly forget my attentive three-year-old is in tow until I hear his little voice ask in earnest, “What’d you say, Mommy?”
“Oh nothing, honey, I’m fine,” I say, and I take a deep breath and try to reset.
I feel awful when he sees me lose my cool, convinced that he and his younger brother are absorbing all of my stress and learning to become easily frustrated individuals themselves.
But a recent research study, published in the journal Science, suggests that bearing witness to my bumbling efforts may be actually helping my children learn the value of hard work and the pay-off of persistence.
Researchers at MIT designed and conducted an experiment in which a group of infants observed adults performing tasks (removing a toy frog from a container and a key chain from a carabiner) and then were given their own task to work on. Half of the babies watched the adult accomplish the task efficiently, while the other half saw the adult struggle for 30 seconds before accomplishing it.
When the babies were then given their own task (turning on a musical toy), researchers found that the babies who’d watched an adult struggle tried harder to succeed by pressing a button that appeared as though it should turn the toy on. These babies pressed the button almost twice as many times as the babies who'd seen the adult succeed without difficulty. They also pressed it twice as many times before giving up or looking to the adult for help. Researchers also showed that babies put forth more effort when the experimenter directly engaged with them, using their names and making eye contact.
These findings suggest that infants even as young as 15 months may be able to learn the importance of effort by seeing adults try hard. Researchers have not yet studied how long these effects last, but they say their findings still hold a helpful message for parents.
"There's some pressure on parents to make everything look easy and not get frustrated in front of their children," says Laura Schulz, a professor of cognitive science at MIT, quoted in Science Daily. "There's nothing you can learn from a laboratory study that directly applies to parenting,” she says, “but this does at least suggest that it may not be a bad thing to show your children that you are working hard to achieve your goals."
It makes so much sense. How can kids learn that success requires hard work if their parents, whom they model their behavior after, hide all of our efforts and make everything look easy? That’s just not reality.
So, while my process of completing tasks, solving problems, and achieving goals may not always (or often) look pretty, I do always finish what I start, and that sense of determination is something I do hope to pass on to my children.
After reading this study, I think I’ll start being more honest with them about the effort it takes to succeed when they ask why I’m red in the face and clenching my hands in frustration. (As for the F-bombs, I’m not sure that has scientific evidence.)
It takes a village!
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