What to say when your child wants to ‘give up’

We do just about everything we can to make sure that our children don’t struggle. It’s natural to want to protect them. However, as shocking as this may sound, we are actually making a terrible mistake.

Research shows that struggling is absolutely critical to mastery and that the highest achieving people in the world are those who have struggled the most. Talk show host Opera Winfrey was fired from her first job at a local television station because she “was unfit for television.” J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by 12 major publishers before a small publishing house picked it up. Business tycoon Bill Gates’ first company was a failure. There are many more superstars who, because of their failures, eventually achieved great success.

Neuroscientists have found that mistakes are helpful for brain growth and connectivity and if we are not struggling, we are not learning. In 2011, a study published in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that people who think they can learn from their mistakes have a different brain reaction to mistakes than people who think intelligence is fixed. The results proved that people who think they can learn from their mistakes did better after making a mistake – they successfully bounced back after an error.

The fact is that struggling is good for our brains, something the Japanese are well aware of. An international study of mathematics teaching found that teachers in Japan attempt to force their students to struggle 44 percent of the time in classrooms. They saw this less than one percent of the time in U.S. classrooms. Why? Because, like us, parents and teachers in America jump in and provide the solutions or show students how to find the answers in order to prevent struggle. This is, in large part, because we are culturally trained to feel bad and rush in to help, when this is probably the last thing we should do.

Students who persist or who try, fail and try again are less likely to give up on problems when they find them hard. Instead, they push through the struggle to the wonderful places on the other side.

When students tell us, “This is hard, I can’t do it, I give up,” we should respond with, “Don’t. That feeling of ‘hard’ or that struggle is the feeling of your brain developing, strengthening and growing.”

In 2016, two young computer scientists rocked the world of mathematics by solving a previously unsolved mathematics problem, an event that many described as daring. Now, I am no mathematician, but this maths problem involved computer scientists developing an algorithm that can fairly divide a cake among any number of people (if this is something that interests you, I refer you to this article). The two young men reflected that it was knowing less that allowed them to solve the difficult problem. It freed their mind to think in better ways.

While it is important to know the answers, developing a mindset of curiosity and discovery is even more important. We cannot achieve anything creative without being comfortable with making mistakes and being forced to struggle. When we learn to approach life with a sense of comfort with uncertainty and struggle, and a willingness to learn from others as well as a flexible mindset with which to solve problems, we are better equipped to deal with challenges and are able to persist with confidence knowing that we are getting closer to achieving our final objectives.

This is relevant as we approach the final few weeks of the academic year – a time to reflect on the past 12 months. How many times did we or our children struggle to find solutions to problems and challenges we experienced? Did we doubt ourselves and give up? Did we value or appreciate some of the ‘struggle’ time, knowing we were on our way to developing a more robust, resilient brain?

If we are able to accept challenges and approach them using a healthy mindset, they can become:

  • Learning opportunities allowing us to learn from our mistakes in order to improve.
  • Growth opportunities allowing us to make better decisions and apply our newfound knowledge to future challenges; and
  • Skillset opportunities allowing us to develop our problem-solving skills, resilience, creativity and resourcefulness.

We have just read about the passing of Sarah and Avraham in the weekly portion. No one knows more about dealing with struggles than our forefather, Avraham. Right from the outset, he was commanded to pack up and leave his home, his parents and his country of birth on a mission to make the world a better place. Avraham was commanded “Lech Lecha” to go for yourself. The word Lecha (meaning for yourself) is superfluous. Our Rabbis suggest this word, for yourself, teaches each one of us not to give up but to constantly move forward, just as Avraham did. To try new things and to be a better person than we thought possible.


ronnengraumanAbout the author

Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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