Is there anything that parents can do to foster perseverance and motivation in their children?

There are many parents who want their children to have a “persevering attitude” that will be very useful in their studies and work when they grow up. We asked Dr. Takao Takahashi, a pediatrician and professor at Keio University School of Medicine, about whether perseverance and motivation can be nurtured by the way adults treat and educate children, and what parents should do to ensure this matter.

If there are times that a child perseveres in spite of failures, it is something that the child enjoys doing.

Is there anything that parents can do to foster perseverance and motivation in their children?

Editor Staff I: Recently, I often realize the importance of “persevering attitude” and “working independently” in my work. In short, I think that a person who can be positive about any issues has a skill that can be used in any workplace, in any situation.

Dr. Takahashi: I see. Is this topic going to be about your life talk?

I: No, no, of course I’m asking about child-rearing (laughs). What I want to ask you is how we can grow these “attitudes.” This is a personal story, but when I observe children at kindergarten visitation days, I feel that their aggressiveness and persistence vary greatly, depending on the child. Of course, there may be genetic factors and innate differences in personality, but can parents nurture their children’s perseverance and motivation?

Dr. Takahashi: So the question is “what can parents do to help their children learn perseverance as a skill,” right? If a child is ever persistent in working on something, it just means that they are doing something they love. No matter if you are a child or an adult, there is a limit on how patient you can be to continue doing something you are not interested in or are not willing to do. This may sound a little rough, but I don’t think there is much to be gained by persevering with something you don’t like to do. In the first place, perseverance and motivation are not something that parents can teach, but something that children learn through their own experiences.

I: Do you mean that the basics are something that children learn on their own?

Dr. Takahashi: I think so. When you let your child experience various things and see a moment where your child is persevering in something, then that is something your child enjoys doing. If they can continue to do something without disliking it, you can consider it as the thing being suitable for them. In terms of providing such a situation and environment, I think parents can do something to help foster perseverance.

Is there anything that parents can do to foster perseverance and motivation in their children?

I: We need to keep a close eye on what our children are showing interest in. I would like to ask you more about that part, but I think what you mean is that “let them do what they like” → “they naturally persevere because it is fun” → “they naturally acquire perseverance through the experience.” On the other hand, I think that perseverance can be developed from the feeling of “not going to lose.” What do you think about it?

Dr. Takahashi: You’re right. Perseverance is something that can be in between failures. Perseverance is the ability to keep trying even after failing many times. A single failure that makes a child feel hopeless and want to stop trying is not a good experience. Because perseverance connects failure with failure, a wonderful experience of success will come in the future.

I: So, when failure leads to success, you’ll be even more motivated.

Dr. Takahashi: Yes, but there is not always success after failure. I think it is totally valid to give up if you try many times and pursue your interests. Even if you end up with failing, there is a big difference between failing after many trials and giving up after just one attempt. Even if you keep failing, if you have the motivation to try again, I think you will be able to develop perseverance. Giving your child various experiences does not mean giving them a lot of After-school activities.

I: How do we learn from our daily lives?

Dr. Takahashi: Rather than daily lives, it is more of “playing.” In my opinion, children’s perseverance and motivation can be naturally acquired through activities. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, the fact that children can play with their friends without getting bored is in itself a work of perseverance. Children learn things that are important in life by playing, and perseverance and motivation are one of them, aren’t they?

Is there anything that parents can do to foster perseverance and motivation in their children?

I: If you let the children play naturally, they will learn various things… This is what you have always said, and it is consistent. That means, parents don’t need to provide the ideal environment for their children to grow? Is it really okay to leave it to the children?

Dr. Takahashi: Yes. Adults intervening in the children’s world will not have a good influence on them. It’s none of our business actually (laughs). If there is something that is really lacking, such as a safe place to play, or if we need to do something different, we can suggest something like “why don’t we use this?” but I think we basically have to leave it up to the children.

I: Parents tend to interfere in their children’s world to provide a better environment, but it is better to value what children learn through diverse relationships, right?

Dr. Takahashi: Yes. It is especially important to let them hang out with other children their own age. There are rules just for three-year-olds. When they become four or five years old, they will start to take turns and set rules properly. At Aoyama Gakuin Kindergarten where I work as a preschool doctor, there are various tools placed here and there in a large school yard for the children to enjoy doing whatever they want. Some children are playing with animals, while others are digging in the sandbox. Even saws, nails, and other things that would normally be taken away from children because of their dangerousness are given to them. That’s why the children there are good with saws and nails.

I: As long as we provide children an environment where they are allowed to do anything freely, they will learn various things and grow naturally.

Dr. Takahashi: It is interesting to watch children play. They play until they get bored, and then find another way to play and move to different places repeatedly. During this time, the members of the group naturally change as well. When the children choose their own games, girls tend to play “pretend” games, and the boys are invited as guests, and they get to taste the food they made with paper and clay, and are asked to clean up after themselves. I think playing games with children of the same age is very useful for developing social skills. When I see them play like this, I think “this is what children’s society is all about.”

The accumulation of new experiences fosters the ability to persevere and not be afraid of challenges.

The accumulation of new experiences fosters the ability to persevere and not be afraid of challenges.

I: Even if parents don’t worry too much about it, children are able to naturally develop perseverance and motivation through playing with other children, and they also develop an positive attitude.

Dr. Takahashi: I don’t know if “positive” is the right word, but it’s the opposite of “passive.” It is much better to try different things than to give up before starting anything or being afraid to challenge. There are some children who are very active in everything they do. But most children have interests in specific fields, such as sports or drawing. It is natural for each child to have motivations in different fields, so let them experience various things first in order to find what they enjoy or like to do.

I: So, the parents should give their children some hints so that they can find something they can be motivated to do.

Dr. Takahashi: That’s right. What “positive” means is something you have never done before but willing to give it a try, I guess. Also, even if you fail in the first trial, if you have the attitude to try again, that’s also what being positive means. The opposite of this is passive, but since children are curious about everything, they will not give up if they think something looks interesting. In that sense, I guess children are born with a positive outlook/attitude.

I: Children are born with a positive outlook/attitude… That’s a quote right there!

The accumulation of new experiences fosters the ability to persevere and not be afraid of challenges.

Dr. Takahashi: If there were a child who gave up even before trying, the child may have been told by their parents “Don’t do it, you will fail” or “I told you from the beginning that you can’t do it” on a regular basis. I’m saying this on repeat, but there are no children who are passive. Even a child who has been out of school for a year due to leukemia continues their schoolwork even while in the hospital, for when they get better and go back to school. There was even a child who lost one of their legs due to osteosarcoma, but studied hard while rehabilitating, and told me “I was accepted to my first-choice school!” with a big smile. They just take things for granted. All children, whether they are born with a disability or a serious illness, or healthy, have the same perseverance to be interested in various things to prepare for the future.

I: I will remember that it is normal for children to try things with a positive outlook/attitude. If a child is not positive, the parents may be putting unnecessary pressure on the child or saying things that may be nipping the motivation in the bud… I’ll have to rethink about whether I am unconsciously doing such things to my child too.

Dr. Takahashi: Those who are not afraid of challenges are used to being exposed to unfamiliar things and gaining new experiences. They have experienced such things in the past. Of course, there must have been a number of failures among these experiences, but I can imagine that there were equally many successes that made them feel okay to fail. I think that perseverance and motivation will be nurtured naturally by trying various things even if it doesn’t lead to success or doesn’t look interesting.

I: Yes. It seems that parents themselves need to trust their children and let them try various things in a positive manner.

Dr. Takahashi: That’s right. As long as it’s not something dangerous or harmful to people, it is important to let them try various things. However, there is no need for parents to prepare anything ahead of time. It is important for children to learn from each other though playing. The way children play changes from day to day even in the same place or with the same friends. We need perseverance to be interested in many things and to devise ways to play which everyone can enjoy. Also, the moment when they walk into a group of children they don’t know and start playing with them is the moment when their positive attitude is brought out to its full potential. But just because they can’t do this doesn’t mean that they are not positive. Children change in the process of growth, so comparing with other children has no point.

Children who are active in everything have a strong presence in a group of children, and parents may feel a little envious. However, what Dr. Takahashi told us today was that children grow through their own process and that playing with friends of the same age nurtures the strength necessary for life, including perseverance and motivation. Even if your child seems to be withdrawn and uninterested in everything, they are observing the situation from a distance and absorbing something from it. If we think of it this way, parents can rest assured.

Accepting children as they are growing at their own pace and watching over them is perhaps the best support parents can give to them.


Dr. Takao Takahashi

Keio University School of Medicine, Head Professor of Pediatrics, Medical Doctor specializing in General Pediatrics and Pediatric Neurology

After graduating from Keio University School of Medicine in 1982, Dr. Takahashi served in the Department of Pediatric Neurology at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital and as a neurology lecturer at Harvard Medical School. He returned to Japan in 1994, and has been active as both doctor and professor at Keio University Pediatrics since. His hobby is running, and his best marathon time is 3 hours 7 minutes at the 2016 Tokyo Marathon, earning the nickname of “fastest pediatric professor in Japan.”


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