Don't Give Up! Babies Can Learn Persistence By Watching Adults Struggle

Turns out, babies can learn “grit” by watching grownups struggle while completing a task.

You’re at home trying to make fresh tomato sauce but can’t seem to get the tomatoes out of their plastic container from the grocery store. The bottom latch is not opening, so you pull harder. Although you’ve never seen this type of tomato container before, you have opened many similar ones in the past. After a minute of trying, you stop to consider the situation – should you keep pushing and pulling? Should you ask a friend for help? Should you give up on fresh tomatoes and just open a can?

We make decisions like this all the time: How much effort should we expend on something? We have only so much time and energy in the day. Five minutes fumbling with the container is five minutes taken away from reading a book, talking to your family, or sleeping. In any given situation, you must decide how hard to try.

Developmental cognitive scientists like me are interested in how we make decisions about effort. In particular, how do young children, who are constantly encountering new situations, decide how hard to try?

If at first you don’t succeed, then what?

The importance of effort extends beyond our daily decisions about time allocation. Recent studies show that self-control and persistence increase academic outcomes independent of IQ. Even our personal beliefs about effort can affect academic outcomes. Children who think effort leads to achievement outperform those who believe ability is a fixed trait.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]We all know that infants are keen observers of the social world. But they’re not just idly watching; infants are tiny learning machines.[/quote]

Given the link between persistence and academic success, decisions about effort are particularly important in childhood. Yet relatively little research has explored how young children learn what’s worth the effort.

We all know that infants are keen observers of the social world. But they’re not just idly watching; infants are tiny learning machines. They can generalize such abstract concepts as causal relationships and social roles from just a few examples. Even a 15-month-old infant can outperform a high-level computer in such tasks.

Could infants also make broad, generalizable inferences from a few examples when it comes to effort? If so, then maybe “grit” isn’t simply a character trait. Maybe it’s flexible and adaptable based on social context.

Just give up … or push through failure?

To explore this question, my colleagues and I showed 15-month-old babies one of two things: an experimenter working hard to achieve two different goals (getting a toy out of a container and getting a keychain off a carabiner) or an experimenter who effortlessly reached each goal.

Then we introduced the baby to a novel “music” toy that looked like it could be activated by pushing a big button on top. (The button could be pressed down but didn’t actually activate anything.) Out of sight of the babies, we turned on the music toy with a hidden button so that they heard that the toy could make music. We gave the babies the music toy and left the room. Then coders, who didn’t know which condition each baby was in, watched videotapes of the experiment and counted how many times babies tried to activate the toy by pressing the button.

Across one study and a preregistered replication (182 babies in total), babies who had seen an adult persist and succeed pushed the button about twice as many times as those who saw an adult effortlessly succeed. In other words, babies learned that effort was valuable after watching just two examples of an adult working hard and succeeding.

Infants in the study try to activate a musical toy. Image via Julia Leonard.

Part of what’s exciting about this finding is that the babies didn’t just imitate the adult’s actions; instead, they generalized the value of effort to a novel task. The experimenter never demonstrated pushing a button or trying to make music. Instead the babies learned from different examples of effortful actions (opening a container or unlatching a carabineer) that the new toy probably also required persistence.

However, most of the time when a parent is frustrated, he’s focused on the task at hand and not on trying to teach his child the value of effort. Can babies also learn the value of effort from adults who are not deliberately demonstrating to them?

To address this question, we ran the experiment again, eliminating any pedagogical cues such as eye contact or child-friendly speech. Again, the infants tried harder on their own task after seeing an adult persist and succeed. However, the effects were much weaker when the adult didn’t use any pedagogical cues.

Learning tenacity by watching tenacity

Educators and parents want to know how to foster persistence when children encounter challenges. Our study suggests that persistence can be learned from adult models. Babies attentively watch those around them and use that information to guide their own effortful behavior.

Yet babies don’t simply learn they should try harder at everything. Just like grownups, babies make rational decisions about effort. If they observe someone trying hard and succeeding, they try harder. When they see someone effortlessly succeed, they infer that effort may not be worthwhile.

So what does this mean for parents? We can’t presume that our results would work for parents in the home just as they work in the laboratory. However, if you know your toddler can achieve a task if she tries hard, it might be worth modeling effort and success for her first. Let us know if it works! We’d also like to know how lasting these effects can be, whether infants might generalize the value of effort to a broader range of contexts and how adult models of effort compare with explicit messages about the importance of effort. We hope to explore these questions in future studies.

The ConversationFinally, this study suggests that parents don’t have to make things look easy all the time. The next time you struggle to open that tomato container, it’s OK, maybe even beneficial, to let your child see you sweat.

Julian Meehan

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