What is the critical factor in raising successful children? Scholars and parents have pondered this important question for millennia. As a psychologist focused on child development, this topic obviously drives my practice and services. It is my hope that both parents and schools instill in children a deep seated belief that will significantly bolster their resiliency and chances for success in life.
To be certain, there is no single, magic ingredient in the recipe for success. However, over three decades of research indicates that a focus on effort, and not on innate intelligence (IQ), is a key element to success in school and in life. Personally, I have observed children with average cognitive abilities eclipse children with much higher intelligence due to their persistence and attitude about hard work. To understand why developing a strong work ethic is so vital, we turn to an eminent research psychologist, Martin Seligman. Seligman asserts that high achievers are not only effortful in all endeavors, but they also have remarkable beliefs regarding failure. It seems that successful children do not attribute poor performance to a lack of ability, but rather to a lack of effort. Persistent students do not dwell on failure, but think of mistakes as challenges to be overcome. Fortunately, many new educator training programs across the country instruct prospective teachers not only to build a child's critical thinking skills, but also to develop a child's work habits and ability to tolerate failure.
Since I am employed by a large school district, my services often relate to children and educational success. As a consequence of my work, I am frequently asked, "How much effort is appropriate for school related endeavors such as homework?" The general rule is 10 minutes per grade for home-study (four days a week). So, a sixth grader might need 60 minutes of home-studying, while an eighth grader needs about 80 minutes per night. I am often amazed at students' reactions when I tell them how much time is expected as their belief about effort is substantially lower. What if your child has no assigned homework? Then your child should still work to develop basic skills, review previous material, preview upcoming material or work on areas of academic weakness. A set time everyday to study at home (with no TV or other distractions) will help build healthy behavior patterns.
This is not to say children cannot have time to enjoy life and be children (don't burn them out), but developing a strong work ethic at home will pay dividends not just in school, but also in their adult life. As a parting message, adults should not necessarily tell children they are "smart," but rather they should emphasize a child's effort and persistence. The good life isn't only reserved for the highest I.Q., the path to success is paved with genuine hard work and sacrifice.