My daughter is persistence personified — she’ll sit in front of a puzzle for hours until it’s done, testing piece after piece in space after space. As a middle schooler, she tried multiple approaches to figure out a tough math problem, even looking up video examples, all on her own before asking for help. My second child is altogether different. Puzzles, with their ornery, uncooperative pieces, get about three minutes of his attention. Tough homework problems can create a cascade of stress and overwhelm. Why is this? Persistence.
Persistence is a helpful trait in life. It describes how long we are able to stick at a task, manage frustration, and push through the challenges we encounter. This quality is part of a child’s growing self-regulation skills, which emerge between 3 and 7 years of age (and continue to develop for many more years).
Persistence is part of how we’re wired. Some of us come wired to stick with something until we’ve mastered it — though sometimes this means we keep pushing way beyond what’s constructive or helpful! And some of us are wired to have a more limited tolerance for persisting at tasks, especially when faced with challenges. But no matter what our temperament is, persistence represents a set of skills that we can learn and get better at over time.
Here are some ideas for parenting children at all levels of persistence:
If your child is naturally less persistent…
- Fun is #1. Remember that children persist longest with activities they enjoy and are interested in. Let children choose their play and hobbies. You might offer additional props or materials to extend their interest, but let them take the lead.
- Try activities with multiple steps. For example, many art projects need time to dry, then need to be painted, then need to dry again. Extended activities like these teach patience and persistence.
- Validate your child’s feelings. Being faced with challenges can lead to big, intense feelings. It’s helpful to give your child the language to put these feelings into words: It can be frustrating when it falls apart. It’s hard when you’re learning how to play a game for the first time. When you aren’t sure how to solve the problem, you can ask for help. It’s hardest the first time you try, but it gets easier with practice.
- Look for age-appropriate “stretch” opportunities. As the parent of a child who is lower on the persistence scale, I know it’s tempting to offer activities you know your child can master because the tantrum when they cannot is… not fun. But the truth is that persistence grows when children learn they can work through challenges and be successful. So rather than pull out that 10-piece puzzle again, try the 15-20 piece puzzle and see what happens.
- Avoid jumping in right away. Children learn to persist by facing obstacles and working out possible solutions, while managing their natural frustration. This can’t happen if adults rescue them at the first hint of difficulty. You know your child best so watch for signs they’re getting overwhelmed and step in only then by asking, “I see you are working hard, but it’s still not working. Would you like to take a break or have a little help?”
If your child is naturally more persistent…
- Be prepared for them to be persistent with everything — including your limits. Persistent children often “want what they want.” So be prepared to set kind, consistent limits over and over again with your mini-litigator. Remember this quality will serve them well later on!
- Validate their feelings. When your child isn’t able to achieve their goal, they’re likely to experience some big feelings. Naming those feelings can help: “You really wanted to go to the park today. But I saw lightning outside so we need to wait. I see you’re feeling disappointed. I can understand how you’d feel that way.”
- Offer help with transitions. Sometimes highly persistent children have a hard time leaving an activity and moving on to something else. You can try giving a 5 minute, and then 3 minute, reminder of a change in activity. Or, try a visual timer that shows your child the time decreasing until the transition happens.
- Step in if your child is “spinning their wheels.” Sometimes very persistent children will get to a point where they are trying the same (unsuccessful) strategy over and over again because they aren’t sure what else to do. Check in and see if your child wants some help — and let them know it’s okay to ask for help too: “I see you’ve tried the big block on the top of your tower a few times now and it keeps falling. Would you like some help thinking about that problem?”
There’s no right or wrong way to experience the world. Persistence is just one trait that makes us all gloriously, perfectly unique. Children have lots of time to learn that there are many ways to engage with a challenge, explore solutions, and work to a conclusion — all while managing the big feelings that arise in these moments. That’s complicated stuff! That’s why they have their entire childhood — and their relationship with you — to figure it out.