Over the past ten years, I, like many educators have been reading and learning about the concepts of growth mindset and the values of perseverance, grit, persistence. The likes of Carol Dweck, who essentially pioneered the growth mindset concept into schools, and Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed, put into words some of the notions many educators have sensed for decades.  These are valuable skills that can and must be taught.   

As we’ve learned, creating environments which cultivate growth mindset principles rests in the language we use, our self-talk, the practices we engage in, the projects and assignments we design and the perspectives we bring into conversations.

As an educator and mother of a two-year old, I have been working hard to cultivate these practices for my daughter.  When struggling she says, ‘I can’t do it….yet’.

The other day I was picking her up from an organized play group at a local church.  Each day when I pick her up she heads to the indoor slide near the exit and takes a few turns going down.

On this particular day, she decided to climb up the slide.  As two-year olds do, she tried, slipped a bit, laughed and then started up again.

In the midst of her attempts to get up, a few kids here and there wanted to go down the slide, so she kindly slid down, got out of the way, and then tried again.

Somewhere around the sixth or seventh attempt I was getting a little, hmmmm dare I say, antsy?  After all, I did have to make a quick trip to Trader Joe’s and of course, I wanted to get her down for her afternoon nap.

As I began contemplating how to put an end to this without an outburst of tears and the toddler ‘NOOOO!’, I looked at her adorable, smiling face climbing up towards me and I saw a look in her eyes that caused me to pause.  It occurred to me that here she was teaching and learning about perseverance. She was so determined to get up the slide… the California toddler was in flip-flops, not ideal conditions for a successful climb up a slippery slide, but her determination and her persistence were undeniable.  She wasn’t antsy; not at all.  She was in the moment.  Climbing.  Falling.  Climbing.  Falling.  Climbing.  Falling… no anger, no frustration, none at all.  She was just working on getting it.

So I decided I’d just watch and resist the temptation to move her along with .. ‘Great job, sweetie, I saw you really working hard.  I’m sure you’ll get it next time, but we need to get going now.’

Immediately a rush of guilt came over me as I realized I’ve probably held up her progress hundreds of times as I’m a doer and like to get things done!  But, I too, embraced my growth mindset principles, grabbed onto the thought that I’m learning too, gave myself some grace and knew I could choose RIGHT NOW to stay in the moment, encourage her and leave my agenda for later.

As I got slow enough and allowed myself to observe and just witness this moment, I saw the inherent nature of human beings – to persevere, keep trying, to go for it at all costs, to move forward regardless.  In that moment I realized how much of the success of our kids’ ability to persevere and develop grit is in OUR ABILITY TO ALLOW THEM THE TIME AND SPACE TO DO IT. 

She was probably on that slide for ten minutes when she finally ascended to the top of the 4-foot slide. I’m not sure if I was more proud of her for climbing to the top or for myself for well… waiting it out.

I began to just bask in the look on her face – one of contentment and pride that no words or lesson could ever create.  It was an experience, an embodied experience in which I know every cell in her nervous system was busy at work building circuits of self-esteem, accomplishment and, dare I say, perseverance and grit.  The ‘healthy struggle’ we attempt to cultivate in schools was happening in front of my eyes, and I almost missed it because, well, I like to keep things moving and get things done.

I know I’m not always going to have the time, nor will anyone, to wait it out… to really, really, be still and allow our kids the time and space to develop these skills, but I do know it’s extremely hard work for us to allow our kids the time to try, struggle, and try again.  Life moves fast and as the pace of life continues to speed up, I have noticed myself needing more and more time to get slow so I can allow her to wrestle with things that build these skills.  For a two year old, it’s figuring out how to put on her shoes, clean up, wipe her face, put her shirt on….. and on and on and on…. With little ones it’s easy to see how we try to move them along, but at what cost?  Is it that they can’t really do it or is it that we are ready to move on?  That we have things we need to do?  Is our help really about them or is it about us? 

For me, I keep finding all of this work requires a slowing down, a return to the breath, a reminder of what in fact we are trying to teach and that in order for our kids to develop these skills it must be on their timeline.  Not ours.

Teaching these skills isn’t really about teaching, it’s about allowing.  The next time you try to rush your kids or students along, just pause and notice if you might be interfering with allowing them to learn the very skills you’d want to teach them later.

My practice currently has a keen focus on slowing down so I can see more clearly what’s happening when I’m ready to move on.  At its simplest I’m just trying not to get in the way of what we are each built to do – thrive.

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