You have goals. And, if you’re a parent, you have goals for your kids and you want them to be successful. You want your kids to grow up to be happy, fulfilled and independent (in whatever way they choose to define success).
You try to help your kids learn — because it is a skill — how to accomplish the things they not only need to accomplish, but want to accomplish.
So you nudge. You encourage. You try to motivate… which means, especially if you’re trying to encourage effort in the face of resistance, you’re tempted to downplay just how difficult a goal might be to accomplish.
Makes sense: The last thing a hesitant child — or a hesitant adult, for that matter — wants to hear is that a goal is incredibly hard, right?
Buried in a weight loss study conducted by researchers at Drexel University is the surprising finding that clearly describing the difficulties people will face actually boosts their self-control, and stiffens their resolve in the face of obstacles.
In short, if I tell you something you’re going to do will be really hard — and maybe even impossible, especially for you — then you’ll try even harder, if only to prove me wrong.
During the study, one group of participants was told their self control was weak and their genes “worked against them.” (Yep: Super encouraging.)
According to the researchers:
We said, ‘It’s impressive and encouraging that you are taking this step to improve your weight and health, but we need to help you understand the daunting challenges you’re facing.’
The reason we did this was not to discourage them, but to give them a more realistic sense of how crucial it is for them to make lasting changes in their parts of the food environment that they could control.
What happened? The people in the “this will be really hard for you” group lost more weight than those in the “cheerleader” group.
According to the researchers:
Questioning the usefulness of building self-control skills… may have bolstered the very capacity it was meant to downplay — stronger self-control with regard to food.
Rather than acting as cheerleaders giving facile encouragement, leaders of weight loss groups might serve their clients better by providing a more sobering description of the challenges participants face.
How to “Encourage” Kids (and Adults) to Accomplish a Huge Goal
The same phenomenon applies to children. When kids (and adults) feel a certain freedom is being taken away — like their ability to perform a task, make a decision, or go after a goal — they react accordingly.
Threatening a choice makes them more eager to act on that choice. (In scientific terms, reverse psychology is called reactance: The motivation to regain a freedom after it is threatened or lost.)
Say your child wants to learn to play guitar and become the next Kirk Hammett; as goals go, that’s definitely a huge one.
Don’t dive right into what the researchers call a “sobering description of the challenges.” Be encouraging. Be positive. Be excited for them.
Be honest about the distance between here, her starting point, and there, the pantheon of guitar greats.
Finally, talk about how you will help. You know it will be hard, so you’ll be there for her: Praising small achievements, picking her up when she’s down, pushing her when she needs a little nudge, listening and encouraging and supporting…
Realistic expectations about the difficulty involved and consistent, unwavering support — that’s the magic combination.
As well as the magic combination for adults: When you expect to face obstacles, finding the resolve to work through those obstacles is much easier. When you’re told something will be easy, and then it’s not… it’s only natural to want to give up.
Hearing a task will be hard — especially for you — also makes you want to prove other people wrong.
It works for me. For example, pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop said it would be almost impossible for me to ride the Alpine Loop Gran Fondo with only three months of training. Yet he also offered to coach me. So I worked my ass off — his training program was a killer — to prove him wrong. (And, more importantly, to prove something to myself.)
I’m sure it’s worked for you, too. Think about how hard you worked — to start a business, gain a promotion, achieve a personal goal, etc. — after someone told you they didn’t think you were capable.
And it can also work for your kids. While there’s a fine line between setting realistic expectations and dampening your child’s spirits, it’s much easier to stay on the right side of the line if you also describe, in concrete terms, how you will help your child achieve a daunting goal.
Not by doing it for them, but by standing behind them to provide support, encouragement, and belief.
Because at some point we all needed someone to believe in us before we could start to believe in ourselves.
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