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10 Tips to Teach Kids to Work Hard and Learn Deliberate Practice

“Repetition is the secret of perfection.”
— Maria Montessori, educator

It took the great artist and sculptor Michelangelo four years to complete the Sistine chapel and three years to complete his statue of David. And that’s after he routinely spent 10+ hours working every day for decades. Yet millions of people around the world still admire his work today.

As we cover in our lesson on play, your kids need plenty of space and free time to just be, exploring the natural world and enjoying life in the moment. At the same time, there are seasons when true joy comes from leaning into hard work and deliberate practice. As Dr. Bengt Bruelde writes, “From our research, the people who were most active got the most joy. It may sound tempting to relax on a beach, but if you do it for too long it stops being satisfying.”

In other words, even though kids (and, let’s be honest, adults as well) may resist the prospect of practice and hard work, it can be just the thing they need. 

But how do you help them see this and commit to it — especially when it’s the last thing they want to do in the moment?

Here are ten tips to teach kids to work hard.

1. Know who inspires them.

It may be an author of one of their favorite books, a particularly funny YouTuber, a standout athlete — or it may be a cartoon, a space project, or a feat of engineering. Whatever the case may be, it’s important to initially follow your kids’ lead and natural curiosity. Pay careful attention to their words and natural interests.

Their views might be off-putting or even seem cliche. That’s okay. Let them lead anyway. As the author Neil Gaiman says, efforts to corral kids into what grownups see as “right” for them can stifle their passion. He writes, “Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like — the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature — you’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.”

As you let them follow their lead and natural curiosity, they will discover inspiration. Your job is to guide them to turn that inspiration into dedicated practice.

2. Show their heroes talking about work.

Once you know who inspires your kids, look for relevant interviews with those people — whether in written, audio, or video formats — and share what you find with your kids. Ideally, you’ll discover their favorite creators talking about their process and dedication to their craft. It’s especially helpful to hear these people talk about their many failures along the way and how the process is often just as enjoyable as the output. This helps kids understand that every success is riddled with failure.

As your kids learn what goes into success, they’ll make the connection between hard work and the output they enjoy. They’ll come to understand that practice and determination and joy are all the same thing.

3. Avoid “because I said so.”

After a long day and consistent resistance from our kids, it can be tempting to end debates about practice and hard work with an ultimatum: “You just have to do it because I said so.” 

While phrases like this may serve as a last resort in a pinch, they deflate kids’ sense of motivation in the long run. Dr. Laura Dabney, a psychotherapist with 20 year’s experience, explains, “While it might be convenient or easy for parents to tell their young school-aged kids they ‘have to do their homework’ because mom and dad ‘said so,’ relying on such empty platitudes will not serve kids in the long run.” 

4. Strew things that inspire them.

Strewing is the practice of intentionally leaving things out for your kids to find and tinker with. It might be an open book about a subject they’ve expressed interest in, a kit you think they might like to put together, pencils and paper, a new musical instrument, or something else entirely. The point is to get them playing with something without feeling that you’re forcing it on them (which can sometimes decrease motivation). 

Kids don’t have to wait until they have a degree in engineering, musical performance, video production, or to start tinkering with projects. They just have to start. 

5. Practice visualization and stillness.

Once your kids start tinkering with something, they’ll find things they want to get better at. And then, sooner or later, they’ll want to give up. That’s when it’s important to take a break and build long-term motivation.

Meditation, visualization, and stillness can help re-connect your kids to what motivated them to explore in the first place. “Keep the remembrance of your real nature alive, even while working, and avoid haste which causes you to forget,” Hindu teacher Ramana Maharshi says. “Be deliberate. Practice meditation to still the mind and cause it to become aware of its true relationship to the Self which supports it. Do not imagine that it is you who are doing the work. Think that is the underlying current which is doing it. Identify yourself with the current.”

6. Teach the concept of deliberate practice.

As the author Malcolm Gladwell writes, ​​“Success has to do with deliberate practice. Practice must be focused, determined, and in an environment where there’s feedback.”

In other words, it’s not just practice that makes the difference. It’s deliberate practice. The educator and author Zaretta L. Hammond writes, “The old adage we usually hear is that “practice makes perfect.” Based on what we know about neuroplasticity and deliberate practice, we should rephrase that to read, “practice makes permanent.” As you organize yourself for this self-reflective prep work, remember that it is not about being perfect but about creating new neural pathways that shift your default cultural programming as you grow in awareness and skill.” Any kind of practice will cement new pathways in the brain via sheer repetition, but only deliberate practice will give kids pathways that are actually useful.

7. Help them recognize flow.

Deliberate practice leads to the sweet spot between our skill and difficulty, called a flow state. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

Here are the main characteristics of flow, as defined by Csikszentmihalyi:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
  5. Effortlessness and ease
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task

As they learn to experience and recognize flow, they’ll start to intuitively know when they should increase or decrease the difficulty of the task at hand and remain in flow. This in turn will keep their motivation high. 

8. Let them see you in flow.

You can teach the concept of flow all day and still not convey what it means. To truly convey it, you’ll want to demonstrate it firsthand. So select something that you are practicing, whether it’s for work or whether it’s just a hobby, and let them see you in flow.

It won’t completely be a flow state since your attention will be split between doing the task and being seen doing the task. Still, you can describe what you’re experiencing as it’s happening. “I’ve been trying to get this paragraph to read smoothly, but now I’m thinking that maybe I should just cut it. It doesn’t really fit like I initially thought it would.”

9. Help them work downstream.

Bethany Butzer, PhD and lecturer at the University of New York in Prague, shares her experience with working hard at Harvard University, only to realize that she was suffering from exhaustion, burnout, and a sense of internal disconnection. Eventually she realized that she was spending far too much time “working upstream,” which feels like paddling over and over and getting nowhere, and should instead work downstream, which is when you go with the natural flow.

The Tao Te Ching describes this as wei-wu-wei, “doing not-doing” or “effortless action.” It comes when we start from a place that’s alive at the deepest level of our being — when our heart and will and actions are all aligned.

10. Keep the dream alive.

Bethany Butzer also found that those who experienced deliberate practice “took some time off for personal reflection and reminded themselves of how they wanted to feel every day.” Rather than work every day without stop, they remembered what inspired them — and then let that inspiration motivate them to focus on deliberate practice.

This is an echo of our fifth point above, but it isn’t necessarily limited to visualization and stillness. After all, some of the best ways to keep the dream alive is to return to the thing that inspired them in the first place whatever that might be — going to a museum to look at timeless artwork, attending a concert, watching a sporting event, playing a game, etc. By experiencing the magic that comes from deliberate practice and hard work, kids gain the confidence in themselves they need to keep going.

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