How to Raise Kids Who Don’t Give Up

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“He gives up too easily. He can’t deal with setbacks. He’s just not resilient.” You wouldn’t believe how often I hear some version of these words in my office. Years ago, parents shared these concerns about teens and older adolescents. What would happen if they got all the way through high school without learning to cope with setbacks? Then what? These days, I hear these same concerns about early elementary school kids, sometimes even kindergarten students. What if they always give up?

Here’s the thing: Building resilience takes time and practice.

Most young children don’t appear “resilient” because they’re learning and growing. It’s perfectly acceptable to cry when or feel mad when your team loses a game or you just can’t get to the castle in Candy Land.

Sure, we all want our kids to show sportsmanship and learn to play a game without completely falling apart. But it’s unreasonable to assume that very young children are equipped to handle highly emotional situations without displaying any negative emotions. Crying, stomping feet, and even walking away muttering, “I give up! I’m never playing this again!” are all forms of emotional expression characteristic of very young children. Until they develop emotion regulation skills, this is how they react. It doesn’t necessarily point to low resilience, by the way. But if resilience or raising a “can do” kid is high on your list of priorities, it’s time to slow down and give your child the skills he (or she) needs. 

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Stop pushing early athletics.

I was a college athlete and a three-sport varsity athlete in high school, so I will admit that I do love organized sports. Team sports teach kids to work together, help kids learn new skills (physical and emotional), and increase physical exercise for young children who are subject to sitting still throughout the day.

The push for early competitive sports, however, is a trend that I can do without. Sure, sports classes and developmental programs meant to encourage group play can be fun. But so many kids play competitive sports throughout the year beginning at age five.

Early elementary children learn and grow at a rapid pace. They experience ups and downs throughout the day. And they don’t often have the skills to label and process those emotions. It’s unreasonable to expect them to be able to show good sportsmanship and avoid meltdowns in a highly competitive environment without proper supports in place. Give your children time to enjoy unstructured play in the early years. This is how they will learn to regulate their emotions and prepare for competition when they’re ready.

Play board games.

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Believe it or not, those Candy Land meltdowns are part of the process of learning to regulate emotions and cope with setbacks. Board games teach kids a ton of useful skills, such as taking turns, listening, sequencing, strategy, and coping with setbacks. We can’t win them all! But that doesn't mean we have to give up.

Here’s where you come in. Resist the urge to say something like, “It’s no big deal.” It is a big deal to your little one. Instead, empathize with your child, help him label his feelings, and talk about ways to handle the game next time. Kids learn when we take the time to teach them.

Replace “why” with “how”.

Why questions don’t do much to help kids solve problems. In fact, why questions tend to intensify heated emotions. “Why are you so upset about this?” or “Why didn’t you do what I said to do?” only make matters worse.

Your job in this scenario is to remain calm and ask “how” questions. How can we fix the broken toy? How can you deal with the noise in the classroom? How can you stay focused when your team is losing the game?

“How” questions remind kids that they have what it takes to overcome setbacks when they stop and consider ways to solve problems.

Promote healthy risks.

I see a ton of kids who aren’t allowed to learn to ride a bike (“It’s not safe to ride on our streets because cars drive too fast.”) or climb trees (“I might fall and break my arm.”) or engage in many healthy risks at all.

One of the best ways to build resilience is to encourage kids to take these healthy, and very normal, childhood risks. Sure, your kids might take some falls and even break a bone. But they will learn to test their limits and push themselves to try new things. They will also learn that they can handle setbacks and upsets. They'll keep trying and won't give up.

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I often tell parents that childhood runs on trial and error, but so does parenting. If you’ve been a risk-averse parent to date, try not to fret. Letting go a little right now will still give your child the time and practice he needs to build resilience, learn to solve problems, and start taking chances.

How do you help your kids learn not to give up?

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How to Raise Kids Who Don’t Give Up

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about helping parents enjoy the ride, she provides parent education and simple strategies to take t ... More

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