Curious Parents

Watching Adults Work Hard Makes Babies More Persistent

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A baby's brain is like a sponge, soaking up every interaction and example they encounter in order to make sense of the world. Infants imitate their parents' smiles, parrot their language, and eventually figure out what kind of behavior will (and won't) get the outcome they want. But does that learning extend to more mature skills, like grit and persistence? Does watching Mom stick to a difficult task give baby more stick-to-itiveness too?

Monkey See, Monkey Do

For a study published in the journal Science in September 2017, researchers recruited roughly 100 13- to 18-month-old babies to participate in an experiment. In the first stage of the experiment, a researcher showed the little one a toy stuck inside a container, said "Look there's something inside of there! I want to get it out!", then narrated their attempts to retrieve the toy.

In the second stage, they did the same thing, but with a toy stuck on a carabiner clip instead of inside a container. For a third of the babies, the researcher tried to figure the tasks out for a full 30 seconds before succeeding. For another third, the researcher took 10 seconds before succeeding, then repeated the tasks twice more. The final third was the control group, which didn't participate in either of the first two stages.

Finally, in the third stage, the researcher held up a box-shaped toy with a big white button on it and said, "Now it's your turn to play with a toy. See this toy? This toy makes music!" The researcher hid the toy and secretly activated it so it played a tune, then turned it off, handed it to the baby, and left the room. All of the babies in the study, including the control group, promptly tried mashing the button to start the music. The question is, would the babies that watched adults try harder at their own goals mash the button more often than the babies that didn't?

Button Mashing Is A Marathon, Not A Sprint

In fact, the babies that watched adults persist for the full 30 seconds mashed the button an average of 23 times, compared to 12 times for the group that watched adults try for only 10 seconds. The researchers also recorded how many times babies pressed the button before the first "handoff" (a polite term that referred to babies flinging the toy to the ground or thrusting it at a parent). That was also significant: 17 button pushes in the 30-second group compared to eight in the 10-second group.

Importantly, when they tried the experiment again without having the researchers talk to the babies, the differences in performance were much more slight. That shows that while demonstrating the value of hard work in your own life is important for your kids, it works best when you're not shy about it: don't just silently stew over the IKEA furniture assembly instructions; let your kids know what you're having trouble with and how you're trying to overcome it. Don't just slave over after-hours work at home; explain to your children what you're doing and why your sacrifice is worth it in the end. Studies show that children with persistence and "grit" grow up to have better temperament and do better in school. So show off your blood, sweat, and tears. Your kids will be better off for it.

What Is Grit?

Written by Ashley Hamer October 12, 2017

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