Someone’s watching you struggle to open that mayonnaise jar, mom. Keep at it because your little observer is also learning about hard work from you.
Recent research found that babies who watch an adult struggle with a task and then succeed afterward are more likely to show perseverance with their own baby-sized challenges.
“There’s some pressure on parents to make everything look easy and not get frustrated in front of their children,” says senior author Laura Schulz, a professor of cognitive science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There’s nothing you can learn from a laboratory study that directly applies to parenting, but this does at least suggest that it may not be a bad thing to show your children that you are working hard to achieve your goals.”
The study involved three experiments with 262 baby participants aged 13 months to 18 months. All of them involved an adult with a task to open a clear container with a toy rubber frog inside or detach a keychain. After, the adult would hand the baby a toy with a power button that deliberately does not work. A secret button on the bottom of the toy, however, allowed the researcher to let the toy play music.
In the first experiment, the researcher would pretend to struggle with opening the container while interacting and making eye contact with the baby by saying things like, “I want the toy! But I wonder how I could get it out.” After 30 seconds, she would succeed in opening the container. Then, she would take out the rigged toy, let it play music for a few seconds and hand it to the baby.
For the second, there was no struggle and the researcher showed the baby how to open the container three times in the same amount of time. The same interaction was done, and the rigged toy would play music via the secret music and be handed over as well. For the third situation, however, the researcher would simply complete the task and hand over the toy.
“Babies who had seen the experimenter struggle before succeeding pressed the button nearly twice as many times overall as those who saw the adult easily succeed,” said the study’s news release. The engagement mattered, too. Babies who were interacted with during the experiment tried harder than those who weren’t.
“There wasn’t any difference in how long they played with the toy or in how many times they tossed it to their parent,” said co-author Julia Leonard. “The real difference was in the number of times they pressed the button before they asked for help and in total.”
What the babies were showing, even at this tender age, is grit. In essence, grit is the ability to withstand failure and keep trying. Grit also comes with the “growth mindset,” which is the belief that skills can be learned and improved on with hard work. More and more experts and researchers are turning to grit as one of the key predictors of a person’s success in life -- even more than IQ.