Promoting a Toddler's Self Efficacy
September 29, 2012 1:50 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to promote self-efficacy in my toddler, and am looking for different methods of going about it.

My 2.5 y/o is a very smart boy, and shows promising signs of great character - curious, friendly, confident and easy going. Sitting with my wife today, talking about that, I realized he is quite formed - in that sense that people acquire their basic traits in the first few years of their lives. So I asked myself: is there something I'd like to strengthen about him, while I still can?* And the answer was: Yes. We want him to develop stronger self efficacy. We want him to be more determined when he's up to a task. We want to promote his longer-term dedication to stuff he's doing.

Now, we all know to encourage our kids when opportunity knocks - "You can do it! Yeah! You made it!" - but how do I bring about these opportunities? Do any of you have any ideas on how to deliberately create situations and activities that'll challenge him, demand an effort on his side, and be fun and rewarding to a toddler his age? A friend suggested sports as a direction, but that's a little vague - I'd be happy to hear more specific suggestions in this field, as in any other.

* To some, this may sound as if I'm not accepting my child for who he is. Let me assure you this is not the case: We make a continuous conscious effort to be empowering parents. It's just that we realize we have a role in shaping his character - and that our window of opportunity here closes fast.
posted by cardamon to Human Relations (24 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
This is something we have discussed a lot in our family. And as a university level professor, I can see how students who are used to dedication, wether it be at sports or computer games, have a huge advantage. I think you should make this a priority. Still, we can't make our second child engage in anything, however much we try. Recently, I discovered she draws when she is bored. So I am going to do everything in my means to support her drawing. Not so much because to make her an artist, as to teach her that training is good.
posted by mumimor at 2:05 PM on September 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

@muminor - I think the point isn't necessarily in teaching a child to go through with something he is prone to, but more to make him motivated to tackle anything that might be thrown his way, to make him believe that he is able to do so.
posted by alon at 2:13 PM on September 29, 2012

He is just a little kid. Enjoy him as he is. I know you do not want to hear that, but what you are saying about accepting him for the person he is does not go with your ideas of "shaping his character". Yes, encourage him in things he loves to do, whatever that is. My experience with toddlers is that most of them are pretty determined anyhow when they really want to do something.

Setting up some kind of artificial situation with the goal of character building for a toddler is just likely to make you and him tense and unhappy and likely to hate it. He is just as likely to give up and quit to escape your scrutiny and goals for him as to improve his character.

Having recently spent a lot of time with the child of a relative, a very bright little girl of about this age, I think you need to relax and rethink this and follow his lead on what he loves and wants to explore.
posted by mermayd at 2:16 PM on September 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here's a PDF from the National Association of School Psychologists; it's directed at parents who want to increase their child's self-efficacy. Although it's clearly written for school-age children, you ought to be able to scale down the level to your child's capabilities (that is, "difficult task" for a 6yo will likely be "impossible task" for a 3yo and may backfire).

Since lack of self-efficacy and having an external locus of control is tied to anxiety later in life, it's good to give your child tools for self-reliance. My only warning is to be aware of indicators of distress; despite his wonderful qualities, your son is still a toddler. Use his interests to create situations where he will be challenged, but still see it all as fun.

From a personal perspective, Montessori methods did a lot for encouraging my own self-efficacy. I only attended a Montessori kindergarten from 3 to 5, but the lessons lasted well into my primary education in a much less fostering environment.
posted by catlet at 2:16 PM on September 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Whoops, forgot the link to the article: Self-Efficacy: Helping Children Believe They Can Succeed [PDF].
posted by catlet at 2:18 PM on September 29, 2012 [9 favorites]

Puzzles have done that for my little chickens. We do quite difficult ones together, but frequently it's them doing it and I'm just sitting there chatting. My now 6 year old was doing 100 piece ravensberger puzzles at three. My 3 3/4 year old isn't quite there but she's a different kid entirely.

Puzzles are great for talking while not looking at each other, and there is a very definite end/visible success.

We bought a puzzle mat for the puzzles that take a few sessions to finish.

Best bonding/ problem solving/ goal oriented thing in the world. And I bloody hated puzzles before we did this.

And they both love the time spent together (and alone on the easier ones) and showing people the photos of the finished puzzle.

Can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by taff at 2:18 PM on September 29, 2012 [9 favorites]

I think the key is lots of successes that take a small-to-moderate amount of work, as stated above. Also, showing off previous efforts - pictures on the fridge, sending a photo of the awesome project to Grandma, etc. Showing your pride in your kids' accomplishments is a very effective way of getting them to generate more of them.

(In general, intermittent positive reinforcement is the best way to get anyone to engage in any kind of behavior at all. So, don't worry about the random accomplishments you accidentally neglect to praise.)
posted by SMPA at 2:26 PM on September 29, 2012

Celebrate failure. Seriously. It is the willingness to try and fail that is required for any success.

Celebrate a second attempt. Offer to problem solve or brainstorm after failure, then let him try again. If he asks you for help, ask him what specifically he needs your help with, rather than just diving in. Let him direct your action. Then help.

Focus on guilt rather than shame when he makes hurtful or dangerous decisions (this will probably come later, but please don't ever shame a child). If he climbs up a bookshelf, don't tell him he was bad to scare mommy and daddy. Tell him that was a dangerous choice, and next time he needs to get you to help him find something safe to climb. That is to say, keep failure (and success!) focused on the actions and choices, not on the character. Because telling people that they are good because of their success allows them to reach "but bad when I fail" through reasoning.

(shame is a pretty universal feeling, unless he's a sociopath he'll feel plenty of it without others helping)

Allow him to see your failures. Be mature and calm while you fail. Make sure he sees you try again. Allow him to see you celebrate your failures. What was good about it? What did you learn? What was fun about it?

Does he dress himself yet? Some of his sartorial choices may be spectacular "failures," due to weather or fit or comfort in a particular environment. But failing in that way is how he will learn what makes him comfortable. (Ambrose Bierce defined sweater as a garment a child wears when it's mother is cold)

Practice and model delayed gratification (check into the marshmallow experiment, where kids were asked to wait to eat their treat) This one task/test has a pretty strong correlation to future success.
posted by bilabial at 2:33 PM on September 29, 2012 [19 favorites]

Oh. Vulnerability! Allow him to be sad (or whatever he feels), to see you sad, to really feel those things and to resolve them, rather than numbing them. Without vulnerability (OK, now I sound like I'm just repeating every lecture Brene Brown has ever given) there can be no innovation.

I'm not saying deliberately expose him to sad things, but when they happen don't wipe them away instantly with a new toy.
posted by bilabial at 2:35 PM on September 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Praise effort, not intrinsic traits. E.g., "you worked really hard on tat" instead of "you are so smart!" there is a great study on this by Po Bronson.
posted by dawkins_7 at 2:41 PM on September 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

Paul Tough's new book How Children Succeed is about this. I haven't read it yet myself (my son is six weeks old, so I haven't had a lot of reading time!) but it's been very well-reviewed.
posted by judith at 2:46 PM on September 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Arrange his environment to support agency and choice on his part rather than telling him "no, you are too little" and hoping he will still want to when he is bigger.

Example: When my oldest was about 15 months old, he began putting his dirty dishes in the sink. He was too short to see into the sink, so he chunked them like a basketball player. Instead of telling him "no", I locked up all breakable dinnerware and let him chunk his dishes. When he got tall enough to do it with less drama, I brought back other dinnerware. A long term habit was formed and that was more important to me than short term what we ate off of.
posted by Michele in California at 2:52 PM on September 29, 2012 [16 favorites]

Well, first, always praise on the basis of effort, not talent. He is not "smart", "strong", he's a "hard worker" and "persistent".

Why not have him do tasks and chores with you, even if they are a little too difficult? Have him help set the table, for example. He can start by carrying silverwear or napkins, and climb onto a chair to set at least one place. When it comes time to pick up toys, he helps you. When it comes time to go grocery shopping, he has a little bag. The six-year-old Matsigenka girl in this article didn't learn to put a campsite together on her own, from an even younger age she was challenged by her parents and other adults to do tasks that were marginally beyond her ken in order to force her to raise her competency.

Having high expectations for the competency of your child, balanced, of course, with a healthy dose of realism (he's not cleaning the gutters at three), is what's going to teach them that it's not only admirable to keep working but necessary in order to reach our goals and do what is expected of us.

I think you're right to not take the "Let our child do whatever" tactic.
posted by schroedinger at 3:03 PM on September 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

We try to encourage our toddler to do things himself. He's very good at asking for help, but sometimes he doesn't really try (things we know he's capable of, even if they're hard), so we work to say, "Can you try again?" and encourage his efforts. Who knows if it will help, but it's one thing we've started doing towards self-efficacy.
posted by linettasky at 3:22 PM on September 29, 2012

If you're interested in enrolling him in music lessons later, start him in a music appreciation class (like Music Together) now. It will help develop his ear for pitch and percussion. (Or so their propaganda tells me.)

Another book to read on this topic is Nurtureshock by Po Bronson.

I am irritated by that smug New Yorker article linked above, and I think anyone who reads it should also have to read this letter.

posted by purpleclover at 3:26 PM on September 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not a parent, but I was a kid. It's been really hard for me as an adult to develop stick-to-itiveness.

I think it would have been helpful to see my parents model this behavior. "Wow, this is a lot of dishes for me to wash, huh? I know I can do it, though." "You saw me get frustrated with the taxes earlier. But you know what, I took a break and went back to it and it wasn't so bad. And I feel so great now that it's over."

Or encouragement rather than scolding when I didn't finish something or do it to their satisfaction. "Thanks so much for sweeping the floor, you missed that spot right there, so try it again. Now it looks great!" Or "Well, you didn't finish your room, but you were off to a good start. What do you think you need to do to wrap it up?" (Don't push them aside and finish it yourself, or punish them to the point that the idea of turning an abandoned chore/project is irrelevant because it's escalated to punishment/fear. Nudge towards the kid doing their own problem-solving, and supporting them in it. E.g., even if they decide the next step is to pick up the toys, when it makes more sense make the bed ... it's more important, I think, that they make the decision and follow through with it, knowing they are supported).
posted by bunderful at 3:37 PM on September 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

This may sound weird, but I talked to my son from when he was an infant, showing him things, like, "this is a spoon," etc.

When he was your son's age, we were into scrambled eggs. As per my dad's recipe, two-three eggs in a bowl, a hint of cold water, then whisk with a fork and pour into the pan. My son was just the right height to stand on a stool and watch, and it was always, "stand back!" when I poured it into the hot frying pan.

One day, he begged me to let him crack an egg. I figured the worst that could happen was wiping up a spill. He took that egg and cracked it into the bowl. Then I let him stir it.

I have pictures of him at 8 or 9 years old, making his own birthday cake. He can also make a wicked good cheesecake and took "food technology" aka Home Ec, in high school. Never a better burger than from him.

I later heard that my oldest brother was apt to get up at 3-4 years old and make himself scrambled eggs on a Saturday morning. I am not kidding. They found him eating eggs and toast in front of the TV.

My dad was a teacher and later a school administrator. He brought home these funny things called Cuisenaire rods, which at the time were not available commercially. We played with them like no tomorrow. I remember those from a very young age.

Another thing I remember is watching my dad do things like laying a brick walk, painting the house and shutters, staining the stairs, I was always welcome to watch and learn.

My mom had me laying the silverware, or doing dishes when I was old enough to stand on a stool. When I was younger, it was folding socks (which I hated, but I did it). I was also handed a dust rag and told to dust the rocking chair, etc.

I think it's a combination of just letting kids be kids and teaching them things as they go along. I never would have thought to let my son crack an egg, but there you go: he asked and he did it. The thrill that it gave him was worth way more than any cognitive advance I could imagine. I was like "High Five, Little Dude!" You don't get those moments back. So think of some simple things like that, yes, it's coordination and all, but the fact that I just let go of my "omg eggshells" and let it be, that was full of awesomesauce for both of us.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:38 PM on September 29, 2012 [22 favorites]

You might be interested in this article, featured in this FPP.
posted by Orinda at 5:01 PM on September 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am the daughter of two parents who didn't let me start doing things properly for myself until way too late in life. Certain things I figured out on my own, and others my parents did give me the responsibility to care for, but really simple stuff and some really big things came with this protestation on my parents' part: "We'll do it, it's just easier, and you don't know how, and it needs to be done correctly." I grew up fearing rejection for not doing things perfectly and to this day my parents still won't let me handle things that are mine to handle.

Give your child responsibility and the room in which to be successful as he learns what is and is not effective when managing his responsibilities. If you have your child load the dishwasher be in the process he loads something and it breaks mid-wash cycle, mourn the loss of the item, show him how to clean up the glass and then explain how he can load the dishes NEXT TIME so it doesn't happen again. Only remove responsibility if the child has shown careless and deliberate disregard for it, not when there's minor failure.

In other situations, ask the child, "Hey, so (undesirable outcome x) just happened. Why do you think it did? Let's figure out what we can do next time. I appreciate how hard you're working and am glad you are contributing to our family in this way."

I praise you for thinking about this. My parents meant well, but their desire to protect me, their home, and other things in life did not serve me well. I could have done with a few more bruises and broken glasses. And to those people who say don't tell your child that they are strong or smart? Do. Those parts of a child's psyche need encouragement too.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 5:09 PM on September 29, 2012 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for putting much thought (and sensitivity) into it. Some excellent leads came up here.
Some of you suggested approaches to building self efficacy - or rather, an approach. We are following that approach, and your suggestions have really encouraged us to continue with this road.
To me, the most valuable answers were those who offered examples, or concrete tactics. @Marie Mon Dieu, you simply nailed it with your examples and suggestions, that was excellent advice. @taff and @Michele in California, your advice regarding puzzles and doing dishes, respectively, sounds great, we'll try it starting tomorrow. @judith, @schroedinger, @purpleclover, @orinda: thanks for the references; I've ordered the books online and will read the articles very soon.
Again, thanks to anyone who paused to think about it and offer advice. Keep it coming - we're thirsty for more.
posted by cardamon at 5:27 PM on September 29, 2012

Here's my two cents worth as a father of a four year-old:

- Don't try to rush your child's development, let it come naturally, and remember that many characteristics are innate and each child is different and also develops at a different pace.

- But do stimulate and support development by providing opportunities, encouragement, and feedback/praise. Let him find what he likes - everyone has different interests and passions.

- Put your child in Montessori as young as possible and/or practice that approach at home (self-direction in deciding what activities to engage in at a given time, intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards, let the child always try to do something himself/herself first before you offer to help unless of course it's a matter of safety). Memail me if you need ideas for Montessori books to read.

- Model behavior and also read books that model behavior.

- I agree with the idea of doing puzzles together (but of course let your child do as much of it himself). Mastering the lyrics and notes of songs together is another beneficial activity. Do fun physical challenges too like foot races, wrestling, the back of hand (gentle) slapping game, thumb wrestling, catching or rolling a ball a certain number of times (good way to learn counting at the same time), etc.

- Let your child make decisions (what to wear, which book to read, etc.) but of course in some cases don't make it open ended but rather a choice between options you provide. This allows him to feel some control over his life and also lets him develop decision-making skills.

- Get some plastic blade scissors from Lakeshore Learning Center. They seem to cut paper only and nothing else (including skin). If he's like my daughter, he'll feel empowered being able to cut paper himself.

- Lots of high fives (and various other versions like low fives and back fives to make it fun), knuckle taps, etc. to make everything joyful and positive.

- Never insult or put down a kid. Always scold the behavior not the person. I'm sure you probably don't do this, but unbelievably some people do and it's horribly destructive.
posted by Dansaman at 6:06 PM on September 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

When my toddler starts in on the frustration-fussing that toddlers do when a toy/project/whatever won't do what they want it to do, I follow essentially this script:

1) Ask, "What's the problem?" Try to get him talking and expressing the frustration in words, not just crying. I help him express it if he can't -- when he was younger because he didn't know enough words, now when the frustration is too high to get the words out. "Did your train track come apart?" "Yes!"

2) Assess problem. Usually it is a problem he can solve. (If it's not, I remind him that he can always ask mommy for help -- because my toddler will just continue on his way until he is irrevocably stuck under furniture -- and then I go help.) If it's an easy problem, I'll remind him, "You know how to fix your train bridge, I know you can do it."

3) If it's a hard problem, I'll keep verbalizing and say, "Ooh, that block is stuck in there pretty good, how do you think we could get it out?" (Listen to ideas or to "I don't know.) "That might work." We'll try that. Then I basically problem-solve out-loud with him. ("How did you get it in? Do you think we can get it back out the same way? Should we turn it upside down and shake?") I let him take the lead on the physical actions, unless it's something he won't be able to do. I consider it a good sign when I'm trying to un-wedge the block with a chopstick and he's backseat driving and telling me how to do it ... problem-solving skills!

4) Praise. When he solves the problem, I'll say something dopey like, "See, I knew you could fix those train tracks!" When it's a team effort, I say, "Wow, that was crazy, but we finally got that block loose. Block high five!" Sometimes I'm sincere, sometimes I'm silly, but I always try to remind him that he was frustrated but was able to solve the problem.

With his more mundane problems I no longer even have to stop reading my book. He starts to frustration-fuss, I say, "What's the problem?" "My train track broke!" "Do you think you can fix it?" In a much calmer tone he replies, "Yes," and settles down to fixing it.

We also break down a lot of adult tasks into sections he can help with or do. He can't read the map when we go orienteering (although we read it to him, even though he doesn't really know what it is yet), but when we get close to the "control," he can look all around for the orange flag (and we can studiously not notice it until he finds it for us). He can do lots of pouring and stirring in cooking, and some chopping. Now that he can fairly reliably follow multiple directions, I can send him to run errands in other parts of the house, to go get a diaper for the baby or find a clean shirt, which makes him feel very proud and he then will start to go run that errand without asking next time. (This is why my trash cans, which are apparently the BEST CHORE IN THE HOUSE have been up and down to the curb three times this week despite it not being trash day ... BEST CHORE IN THE HOUSE.) He likes to feel mastery over small tasks, like sorting recycling from trash when we're doing cooking. At first I had to tell him which was which but now he knows 90% of it and loves being the boss of putting things in the right bin.

When he's being three with EXTREME PREJUDICE, I'll ask him, "You keep getting in a lot of trouble right now. What are some ways you could play that wouldn't get you in trouble?" He thinks of some, and we make what is apparently called a "play plan." It works pretty well, like maybe 60% of the time, which is a better hit rate than I had with "cut it out, go do something else."

It's also important to give them some background knowledge before asking them to come up with a behavior plan. We read "The New Baby" by Mercer Mayer and another book ("Digger Man") about baby brothers, so when we asked him, "What are some nice ways you can play with a new baby?" he had some ideas, like tickle them and read them books and sing them songs, and then those were the things he would try. It's important to let kids solve problems on their own, and try and fail and try and succeed and make choices, but it's also important to help them understand the context so they can make informed choices.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:52 PM on September 29, 2012 [10 favorites]

My mother has developed a mantra for my easily frustrated son: "Try five times before you cry." I intend to expand this to "... or ask for help." We're hoping it will help him build tenacity.
posted by Ollie at 4:38 AM on September 30, 2012

It's funny how psychology gives formal names to things that often happen just naturally. When my daughter was starting to babysit I gave her this advice:

Your job is to find something that the child can probably succeed at, then challenge them to do it, and then praise the fact that they were able to do it. Bonus points if that thing is something that might be a little hard for the child to do - show them how to ask for help if they need hints. It doesn't matter if you are cooking, cleaning, reading, playing with blocks or running around outside in the yard - use your environment to find something to challenge the child and then let them know they did a great job.
posted by CathyG at 7:28 PM on September 30, 2012

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