Teaching Kids How To SucceedLearning what it takes and managing expectations
Helping Kids develop self confidence and persistence
by learning to do what once seemed impossible
Teaching Kids What It Takes To Succeed
What happens when a young person tries to do something hard for the first time? The kind of thing that nobody can just “do” without a certain amount of training and a lot of practice like perform a difficult dance step or play a musical instrument?
Most likely, without guidance and perhaps insistance, they decide that it’s hard and they can’t do it. Then when they later see other kids doing this same thing they feel like those kids have some talent or ability that they weren’t lucky enough to be born with, or they decide that they aren’t good at “that”. The next time something is hard, they don’t want to feel like a failure or like they’re not good enough so they will find a way to avoid trying and probably even decide they don’t really want to do that anyway. This reaction could easily be misinterpreted to mean they don’t care about whatever it is or even that they’re lazy, when in all likelihood it is coming from a place of insecurity and lack of self confidence.
So how do we develop the confidence to tackle learning to do hard things? The only way is by learning to do something hard, something you thought you couldn’t do when you first tried it. Kids need the experience of not being able to do something that feels practically impossible, being taught the right way to do it, and then doing it unsuccessfully enough times (i.e., practicing) they eventually succeed. There’s no other way to learn, really learn, that you can learn to do difficult things and that eventually it doesn’t even seem that difficult anymore.
No matter how many times someone tells you this is the case, it just isn’t real until you yourself have learned to do the impossible. Which means having the fortitude to come back and keep doing it until you learn how . . . until your body learns how, which is a lot different then your mind learning how something is done.
Knowing how something is done is spectacularly unuseful if you can’t actually do it. And most things worth doing cannot be done well without repeated and consistent practice.
Some kids will show this kind of persistance, but most won’t. At least not until they’ve developed the confidence that they can learn to do hard things. So unless someone older and wiser insists that they keep learning and practicing the hard things until they do become proficient, they will never persist long enough to develop that confidence and may go through life avoiding things they can’t yet do for fear of failing.
To not teach kids the value and necessity of learning things they can’t already do by insisting that they study and practice is doing them a huge diservice and setting them up for a life of mediocrity and failure. And that’s a shame.
Back when learning a musical instrument was available, and even the accepted norm in elementary school, kids had a chance to learn this along side of other kids their age who were starting from the same place and learning the same way. That gives them a chance to see that it’s hard for everyone when you first start out, but that all the kids who put in their daily practice time were playing and reading music easily and proficiently after a couple of years. So when they want to learn to do something else that seems impossible the first time they try it, they get that they need to learn from someone who knows what they need to know and to practice it everyday for awhile and then they can be good at it too.
It’s not a matter of other kids can do something you can’t, it’s that you haven’t learned how yet, and the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be having fun with it.
I remember having a couple of friends in grade school who’s parents made them practice 2 to 4 hours a day to ensure their success. I do not think that is necessary or even desirable unless they want to. My minimum commitment was 20 minutes a day and I ended up being the best clarinet player in the district for 4 years, from 5th through 8th grades. Granted, I ended up practicing more than an average of 20 minutes a day. Once I’d developed a basic proficiency, playing began to be fun. Even if I didn’t feel like practicing that day, once I sat down to get through my required 20 minutes, I started having a good time, and feeling the satisfaction from making noticeable progress and doing things well I couldn’t do all before. So sometimes I would just play for 20 minutes, but often I kept going for 30 minutes or even an hour. Stopping whatever I was doing to go practice didn’t always sound like much fun, but once I was playing, continuing to play was easy. The time would just fly by.
And I suppose, to be honest, that winning the weekly challenge to my first chair status was a pretty good motivator, too. It feels good to be the best at something, especially something you love.
But, now that music has been removed from most of the schools, kids aren’t learning this, and aren’t developing the confidence and persistence, or grit, to keep at something until they’re good at it. The kids who’s parents offer them lessons and insist on daily practice will learn this. The kids who also want to play see their friends doing this cool thing, but when they try it themselves they can’t do it well or at all, so they feel inferior. Their friend is good, they are not. Their friend obviously has some special talent or ability that they don’t have, so instead of going after what they want they find ways to avoid being in a situation where their inadequacies are so obvious, and where they’ll feel like they’re not as good as the other kids. No one likes doing things they’re bad at. Kids want to be winners not losers, but we’re not teaching them how. Instead we’re letting them grow up secretly feeling like losers while pretending they don’t care. And that is a shame.
Kids need to learn that everything truly worth doing is going to take time and effort. And that choosing what looks easy over what they really want is sure to be disappointing, especially when what looked easy turns out not to be.
They should also see as early as possible how much fun playing music can be, but only after they’ve put in work required to play at a basic level of proficiency.
They need to understand the difference between talent and actually being good at something, because all the natural ability in the world will go to waste if they don’t practice consistently over time. Daily practice will always lead to better performance and playing than that reached by the most talented child who only plays when they feel like it.