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Raising incredibly persistent kids in 5 steps

There is much evidence to suggest that children’s ability to persist through difficulty predicts social and educational outcomes. One study found that persistence in 5/6 year olds significantly predicted their reading and math achievement between kindergarten and early adolescence. A recent study has found that “paying attention and persisting on tasks are foundational skills that are critical early in life and continue to positively predict a variety of social and academic outcomes throughout childhood and into adulthood”. The study suggests that that interventions in early childhood can help promote persistence.

As the well-known Marshmallow experiment has shown, a child’s ability to delay gratification (and persist) predicts future success.

The Marshmallow Experiment is fairly well known. Researchers from Stanford University conducted a 40-year research study that began in the 1960s by observing how four-year-olds reacted when they were given marshmallows. The marshmallows were placed on a table in front of the child and the researcher then left the room after telling the child that if he/she did not eat it while he was away, he/she would receive a second marshmallow; however, if the child ate the first marshmallow, they would be no second marshmallow. The researchers then repeatedly conducted follow-up studies for over 40 years. You can read more about the marshmallow experiment here and here.

The marshmallow experiment and other studies revealed that the children who succeed in delaying gratification had a greater chance of growing up to be more successful adults.

• They had higher academic success
• They were less likely to suffer from obesity
• They were less likely to turn to drug abuse
• They were better able to set goals and stick to them
• They coped better with frustration and stress


So how can you raise a persistent child?

1) Teach your child to resist temptation. Some studies have shown that older children (from age five onwards) who are able to look away from the reward or distract themselves in other ways are able to delay gratification (you can read about those studies here and here). The marshmallow experiment found that children who used strategies such as covering their eyes, singing songs or imagining pretzels instead of marshmallows were more able to resist temptation.

One strategy you can use: If you want your child to watch less TV for instance, propose other activities to distract him/her: give them something else to play with, take him/her to a different room, ask him/her to ride his bike or play outdoors, show him/her a video that teaches him how to create something. Helping your child imagine another desirable reward has been found to be the most effective manner in which to take his/her attention away from temptations.


2) Make the end goal desirable. It is no secret that individuals strive towards what they perceive as desirable. One study found that impulsivity, i.e., the tendency to act without reflection, was more common if the reward was perceived as undesirable. The more the ultimate reward is perceived as desirable, the more your child will be able to delay his/her gratification.


3) Give your child the keys to succeed. Some experts suggest that children are not sufficiently taught to improve their sense of themselves as competent and successful human being. They argue that:

• How you define success must be clear to your children
• You must model the skills you feel your children need to be successful. In so doing, you show them that these skills are within their grasp
• You must help your children see success as a valuable aspect of their personalities


4) Foster originality. Fostering originality means teaching your child that there are multiple means to the same end.

One strategy you can use: Help your child brainstorm and demonstrate that all ideas are worthy of consideration.


5) Foster self-regulated learning. Self-regulated learning has been associated with a multitude of positive outcomes: One study found that self-regulated students believe that their successes or failures are within their control rather than determined by external factors. A different study found that self-regulated learned considered that academic success involved taking on challenging tasks, practising, exerting effort and developing a greater understanding of the subject matter. Some researchers have found that self-regulated learners demonstrated a higher sense of self-efficacy. Yet another group of researchers found that effective self-regulation is critical for success and happiness.

One strategy you can use: Encouraging your child to express his/her feelings and say out loud how he/she should react is one effective way of developing self-regulation.

To practice self-regulation, you can also ask you child to do the opposite of what he/she hears. This technique has been used by researchers such as McClelland who argues that parents can use games to help children about self-regulation. Using semantically conflicting tasks has been found to be an effective way of helping children develop self-regulation skills. Learning to listen, then act according to instructions, is a skill that can be taught from a very young age.



More resources on instilling resiliency in kids:


Using challenges for character development - School Pyschologist + Author, Stephen Gray Wallace


The gift of introspection - Psychologist + Author, Edwin A. Locke, PhD


Helping your child practice resiliency - Parenting + Youth Development Expert, Dr. Deborah Gilboa


Dr. Sanya Pelini's picture
Parent, Educational Researcher, Writer

Sanya Pelini holds a Ph.D. in educational research from Université Paris-Est Créteil in France. She transforms educational research into practical tools and resources for parents on her blog Raising-independent-kids. She is the author of the Ebook Fifteen Days to Independent Kids.