Here comes June, here comes summer, there goes the school year.
This time of year, it is easy to marvel at our students’ – your children’s – growth and maturity. Each and every one of them is now doing things they were not doing at the beginning of the year. Two year olds are taking turns, three year olds are pouring their own water at snack, four year olds are doing their own zippers and buttons, five year olds are writing with inventive spelling.
Each growth – each gain – is hard-fought and hard-earned. The long, slow, steady march of development does not come easy. A two year old taking turns is the result of hundreds (thousands) of moments of grabbing and yelling; a three year old pouring water only comes after months of spills and paper-towel-cleanups; four year olds only zip up their jackets after a whole winter of practice; and five year olds begin to spell only after three years of turning the lines and curves of their scribbling into letter-like shapes.
None of this, in other words, is a “light switch” – you don’t turn skills on suddenly after a dormant period. They are always emerging; a young child is always on the precipice of her next major breakthrough. She’s in her Olympic training period; she’s putting in her 10,000 hours.
You know how you can “star” an email in your gmail inbox? I have 74,146 emails archived in my JCC account. I have starred exactly one of them. I refer to it irregularly throughout the school year, as a guiding light for what children need as a key ingredient in their growth. The email is from June 28, 2012, during the beginning of a summer I spent directing Camp Settoga (then known as Pearl River; Adam Metzger, Room 5 co-head teacher, is our Camp Settoga director – reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org!). Lucy Cohen, a specialist on camp staff that summer, sent me the following email:
Thought you'd appreciate this line from Henry, age 5:
"I'm so tired because today I tried my hardest"
That’s the whole email. That’s all I need as a reminder for why you send your children to JCC schools, camps, and programs. Growth is hard – and it also happens to be the major task of all young children! As we turn to summer and leave the classroom behind, I want to highlight a crucial way in which “I tried my hardest” is inextricably linked to personal growth and the development of new skills.
The jargon for what I’m getting at is “frustration tolerance.” A phrase that speaks for itself, strength in this area provides a fertile landscape upon which all other skills can be nurtured. Frustration tolerance is the three year old attempting to pour their water knowing it will likely spill; it is the four year old stubbornly refusing assistance with their zipper, determined to get it right this time. It is your toddler barking back at you, “Me do it!”, on tasks you know they can’t yet do. It is the ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back on it – whatever “it” is.
As adults – as busy, New York City parents – we are all too prone to step in, to intervene. To button the jacket, to resolve the dispute, to snap the Legos together. The beautiful thing about frustration tolerance is that we can help grow this in our children by…doing less. By biting our tongue, by sitting on our thumbs, by quietly backpedaling just as the going gets tough. This approach to child development acknowledges that growth is hard, but also that children are persistent and capable; it rests on the fact that there is no “light switch” to the acquisition of skills and maturity – there is only trying (despite what Yoda has to say on the topic – though his “unlearn what you have learned” comment itself is worthy of much commentary when it comes to parenting!).
So, here are some suggestions for how to support frustration tolerance in your child – for giving them the opportunity to try their hardest. Each of these revolve around the core notion that when we intervene too early in our child’s struggles, we rob them of opportunities to develop frustration tolerance. Your child is already motivated – that’s why their trying to do whatever “it” is! Our early intervention sends the clear message, even if unintended – “We both know you can’t do this, so I’ll do it for you.” Here are some strategies for building frustration tolerance in different categories of action and effort:
Task completion: Pouring water, zipping up a jacket, building a Lego tower, scaling the climbing structure at the playground – anything that involves physical manipulation of, or around, material objects. As your child struggles with completing the task, with reaching his goal, simply back off. Recede into the distance. Instead, after a few times of watching them fail and try, offer them verbal encouragement focused on their effort and strategies, not the outcome: “Wow, you’re trying so hard! I can tell how much you want to do [this]. It looks like [this] is really hard!” If they can’t do “this” after several times, ask them, “What other strategies can you try? Is there a different approach you can take?”, or even give them more explicit pointers, highlighting new strategies they could take. And absolutely essential for this approach: if after some real effort by them and strong (verbal) support from you they still can’t complete the task, that is OK. Children need to learn how to walk away defeated by a task, knowing they tried their hardest. “You tried so hard and I’m really proud of you. It was really great to watch you try [that]. I know one day you’ll figure it out.”
Emotion and desire: Big emotions! This is the lava spewing from our volcano-children as they erupt in fits of passion. He has light up shoes and I don’t, and I want them now! Or, I’m scared of blood and needles and so I’ll scream until the whole pediatrician’s office knows exactly how I’m feeling! Or, I waited this whole time for a ride on the carousel, but you made me leave before I could ride it!
In each moment, depending on resources available, we could give our children what they want. Often our knee-jerk reaction is to yank our children out of their emotional state: “Sweetheart we’ll get you those shoes next time, promise.” “Here’s a lollipop and sticker” so you don’t have to think about your fears. “Fine, your dad will take your brother since he needs to go, and I’ll stay here with you longer.” An approach that strengthens frustration tolerance looks very different: “I can tell you’re really [frustrated] [sad] [mad] right now.” Period. End of sentence. Deep breath. Pause. Big hug, and a big “I love you. I’m here with you.” Another deep breath. Ten more deep breaths. Another hug, another “I love you.” And then, backing off and letting it go. Our children need to know that big emotions are OK. It is OK to feel mad, to yell, to cry. These are not emotions to be scared of, to eradicate. This is where “frustration tolerance” is used quite literally. Later that day, in a quiet, calm moment: “I noticed you were really frustrated earlier. It’s hard when we don’t get what we want. I’m so proud that after you finished crying, you got back off the bench and kept playing with your friends.”
Peer interactions: OK we all know this really means “peer conflict”! Your child is tussling with a peer over who gets to use the sand pail, the soccer ball, or go down the slide. Just like above, you could jump in and “solve” the problem: “He had it first, and when he’s done he’ll give it to you.” Or, “We’re leaving if you can’t calm down.” Or, “I’m not letting you use the slide since you pushed him.” A different approach: “I know you guys can figure this out. I’ll be over here if you need me.” The key here is to offer two ingredients: trust and independence. Verbal coaching helps here as well but only if you’re actually coaching – and not solving the problem for them. And like above, if the children can’t “figure it out”: “I’m so sorry that this is making you both cry. I know how hard it is. You have to decide if you want to stay here and work on it, or if you’re ready to move on and do something else.”
All of these moments – task completion, emotions and desire, peer interactions – are the front lines in your child’s daily work of “growing up” and mastering new skills. And yes, even in moments you KNOW they won’t be successful, they still don’t need our intervention. The whole point of this approach is for children to be given moments to practice their emerging skills, to get their 10,000 hours, to learn how to sit with their struggle. To tolerate their frustration.
The thing to marvel at, this time of year, is not the new skills our children show off, but at just how hard they worked to develop them.
As we turn towards summer, I encourage you to keep “frustration tolerance” in mind as an invaluable tool in all your child’s learning and growth.
Here comes June, here comes summer, there goes the school year.