Thursday, December 2, 2010

Encouraging Our Children #8

Failure and defeat will only stimulate special efforts when there remains the hope of eventual success.

The latest in my endeavors to look at ways to encourage children is one I get.  No one wants to do Sisyphean acts, and as an academic I have to admit I think I do them regularly.  Sometimes when I look around our house at all the small, sharp-edged toys littering the floor that I will inevitably step on and then pick up, I think I do them regularly at home, too. 

But back to encouraging our kids and this piece of advice, we only need to look at the work of Lev Vygotsky and his zone of proximal development.  Here is Vygotsky's key quote on it:
the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.
In less philosophical terms, Vygotsky believes that the best learning takes place when learners are pushed just beyond their current abilities, but not so far that they cannot attain the goal.  Once a child is pushed beyond her abilities, an educator, parent, whomever should provide just enough guidance so the learner can complete the task.  So the work is challenging, but doable.  

Essentially, what I think Schafer is advocating with her eighth suggestion is to make sure when our kids do fail (which is different than making a mistake) or are defeated, that we make sure there is a hope of eventual success.  That hope will result in additional, or as Schafer calls them "special" efforts that inspire kids to succeed.  Ensuring success is far more attainable when we consider Vygotsky's zone and his suggestion that children be pushed into it, not beyond it.  It means that as parents, we need to provide the support so they can accomplish the goal.  It also means that we shouldn't push children into situations in which they cannot ultimately succeed.  We shouldn't have unrealistic expectations and transfer them onto our children, especially expectations born out of parental pride. 

So how do I do this with my boys?  First, I have an confession.  I am easily frustrated.  Sometimes that even means I quit.  I don't want my boys to have that same response that I do.  I want them to see a challenge where I see frustration.  I think it will ultimately make them more successful in life.  So I commend effort.  More specifically, though, when one of my boys needs or wants help, I try to do as little as possible while ensuring that they are capable of succeeding, eventually, if they try.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes I just do it myself when the situation calls for it.  It isn't worth me being thirty minutes late for something or watching a complete tantrum, including a scream like a tornado siren because my child can't put on shoes with defective tongues by himself. Am I succeeding?  I guess we won't know until they're grown.  But I do see my boys work hard at things, occasionally failing, and working until they succeed. 

What do you do to help your kids work through failure or defeat, redoubling efforts so they can succeed? Do you have any great stories of you or your kids overcoming failure through extra effort?


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  2. My daughter was six, and she decided she wanted me to teach her how to crochet. She wanted to make her doll and blanket. She caught on quick, but because she was concentrating so hard, her hands sweat, and the yarn wouldn’t move through her fingers, causing the stitches to be too tight. She got mad and frustrated, and when I tried to explain what was happening, and to take a break until her hands dried, she got mad at me. I knew she knew how to crochet, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was she was determined to make a blanket and was frustrated that it wasn’t working as easily as it did for me. My problem was, and always has been, not feeling patient with her impatience. A double trouble combination. I finally realized I needed a time out too. So I told her I knew she’d figure it out, and went into the kitchen. I heard a lot of grumbling, and exasperated yells, but after a few minutes, she stomped to her room. I was bummed. I hadn’t wanted her to give up, but we were both getting too frustrated to continue together at the moment. She came back after a little while and started again. She saw that it was much easier, and came running in excited. “Look, it works!” She understood what I meant, but she had to come to that conclusion for herself. We’ve had many similar struggles over the years, and what I continually have to remind myself is that she wants me to be there when she figures it out for herself. Sometimes, that means waiting in the kitchen, out of the line of fire, until she does.

  3. This was an interesting post. In early childhood education, we call it 'scaffolding' when we provide only enough support to help the child really accomplish something on his/her own (Vygostsky). As a playschool teacher, my job was mainly scaffolding children's interests and efforts all day long- and it was delightful to see: it works! The child can accomplish something new and truly take the credit for it, with plenty of effort and just a tiny bit of support.
    As a parent, I think it's harder. You're not in an 'artificial' school-like setting where all the tools and time you need are available. This is real unpredictable life. My daughter is 12 now, and her drive for independence has never been stronger. It makes her angry if she needs my help, and sometimes she'd rather not do an activity at all if she can't be completely independently successful. Because I'm a teacher by trade and training- I automatically want to turn everything into a learning moment. That's something to watch out for, because it can exasperate our kids. I'm learning to just let go. It's up to her. If she wants to do the activity badly enough, she'll either figure it out on her own or welcome some help. If not, she'll miss out on it, and that is the natural consequence (which will also teach a lesson, actually, of a different kind).
    Thanks for sharing. It's refreshing to read a Dad's perspective.