My kid is a wimp

My partner runs a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu club. Like many sports, parents love to send their kids. It is a great way for them to get fit, make friends and use their brains and bodies. And of course, it is fun.

Unfortunately, you get some kids with behaviour issues, and worse, some of the relationship dynamics with parents are not good. One set of parents complain that their kid isn’t creaming the other kids in class. It seems their aim in enrolling this little boy is that they want him to “toughen up”. They make it quite clear to the kid that he isn’t doing good enough. Sadly, we get teachers, bosses, managers and coaches like that too.

I wonder what I would say to such parents? I came up with the idea that there are two possibilities when you present someone with a new and challenging task:

  1. they have the skills and persistence to complete it; or
  2. they have not yet developed the skills or persistence, and can not do it yet.

The “toughen up” school of thought is that you keep hitting the kid with #2 until he gets it. Unfortunately, doing that is incredibly demotivating. Very few people (or any other animal you care to name) will, in effect, say “oh, fantastic, I totally can’t do this – I’ll just keep repeating failure”.

Learners who do persist have had lots of success at being persistent in other learning situations. They know persistence pays off for them. They are also the ones who are enjoying the failed attempts because they are anticipating success. Does that sound like a more “tough” attitude?

It is unrealistic to expect a learner who does not yet have the skill of persistence, to learn and improve with consistent failure. If you ask any marine mammal trainer, they’ll tell you that one of the first skills they teach an animal is that if something doesn’t work, try again and it will absolutely, definitely work next time. They do that by making the task much easier if they need to, to bring it back to a #1.

Success (completing that #1 task) is incredibly rewarding (and it doesn’t matter if you are a little fish in a tank or a kid in a BJJ class). The joy that comes with success leads us to do that again. An occasional “not quite, try again” is how we begin to learn persistence. Start with really minor, occasional set-backs interspersed with lots of successes. Pretty soon, the learner has the confidence to ignore those setbacks without feeling upset by them. Gradually they gain skill, try harder tasks, fail more often – and it doesn’t bother them much because they know on a deep subconscious level that success is coming!

So to all of those “toughen up, Buttercup” parents out there: creating a learning environment that is full of success (#1) and small failures (#2) builds resilience. Resilience is where that “toughness” you are after comes from. Constant failure (#2) destroys confidence and gives you the “wimp” – the learner who gives up and doesn’t want to try any more.

Check out 1:30 when the fish – who is a new learner and not used to failure, gets upset and gives up!

Today I’m going to give my inner kid (or maybe its my inner fish?!) a break, and stop calling her a wimp when I face her with tasks that are too hard. I can read my lack of confidence at any given moment in my work day as a request to break the project before me into smaller, easier bits. I will be rewarded with a return to confidence and all those important tasks getting done.