One of the questions I get asked on a regular basis at my speaking events is: How hard should we push children to help them become the best they can be?
I get it. You wouldn’t be doing what you are if you didn’t want to make a difference to a child’s life. Helping them make sense of the world and going above and beyond so they can achieve their fullest potential and lead successful lives is super rewarding.
But there is a fine line between being encouraging and pushing too hard. Don’t apply enough pressure and the potential you see might be wasted. Push too much and pressure mounts, which can cause resentment, disenchantment and even anxiety.
I want to take you back to my childhood because the messages we receive as we grow up shape our identity and influence our path to success. The guidance I was given by the people around me hold a lot of influence over me even today, and I still fall back on two key ingredients.
1 The first was there’s no such thing as “I can’t”. Those words were not allowed in my vocabulary. Ever.
Did you ever have to learn how to play the recorder in Primary School? I hated those things with a passion. I didn’t enjoy it, I couldn’t get the hang of it, and anybody who happened to be in the vicinity when I was practicing might justifiably have been mistaken in thinking I was trying to strangle the neighbour’s cat.
One day I’d had enough. I stamped my foot, threw the recorder across the lounge and shouted, “I can’t do it!” My mum picked up the recorder and said, “There’s no such thing as ‘I can’t’. We’ll both learn how to play.” And we did. I got there in the end, if you consider a tuneless rendition of Little Donkey at the school Christmas play a success, but I did it.
2 The second ingredient was to work hard. Way before all the research about growth mindsets became popular, I was encouraged to give maximum effort at everything I tried. As long as I did my best, then win or lose, my support team would never be disappointed with any of my results.
I wasn’t pushed in a particular direction, but rather encouraged to explore, try new things and find my passions. If a new opportunity came my way I was taught to jump at it. If I wasn’t great at something I was encouraged to practise. When I careered straight into challenges I was given no other option but to pick myself back up and find another way around.
Of course, there were days when my motivation flatlined. I got frustrated and stressed out. I questioned whether my efforts were worth it and lashed out when it all got too much – and that’s when my support team really stepped up. If I was unable to find the motivation to dig deep they would find that motivation for me, inspiring and pushing me to be the best I could be in equal measure.
Perseverance and resilience are core ingredients in the pursuit of any goal, requiring us to keep fighting and keep pushing through our comfort zone. How we support children to develop perseverance is a delicate balancing act.
Here are three tips to help get the balancing act right:
UNDERSTANDING THE CHILD
We’re all different, we all respond to different stimuli, and are motivated by different things. Different personalities respond to pressures differently too, so knowing the young person is the first step. Understanding their passions, strengths, capabilities and motivations will help. Ensuring that the young person is party to conversations about their interests, activities and career aspirations is key.
Engage, discuss and explore – understand what they want to achieve and the help they might need to get there. This allows them to buy into the process rather than being dragged along.
EFFORT DOESN’T ALWAYS EQUAL RESULTS
If you want to be good at something you have to work hard for it, but it’s not a linear equation. More effort doesn’t always equal better results. Working smarter rather than harder often leads to better results and mixing it up with fun activities as well as using a robust goal setting model can really help young people develop perseverance and motivation.
Positive reinforcement is a great way to develop intrinsic motivation, self-esteem and perseverance. Praise needs to be meaningful but it needs to be regular, so it is important to praise at the right times for the right things. Focusing on specific points and drawing out positives even when things haven’t gone as well as hoped are really important, as is praising effort and tenacity.