Teaching Your Kids Perseverance

There’s an interesting article that came out recently contrasting the Japanese classroom with the American classroom. In the Japanese classroom, the student having the greatest difficulty solving a problem is asked to work on his problem in front of the class. Even if it takes the entire class period, he continues to struggle with it while everyone watched. The teacher checks in periodically and asks the class how he is doing. The class offers input and encouragement. Once he solves the problem, everyone celebrates together.

Now, having just barely survived Junior high, I can’t imagine experiencing something like this in an American classroom. Why is that? The key researcher in this article, Jim Stigler, says “I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart… It’s a sign of low ability – people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity… They’ve taught them that suffering can be a good thing.”

"Ok now everyone lean this way!"

“Ok now everyone lean this way!”

Wow. What a difference this is. If you have to struggle with something, then you are a moron, a loser, voted most likely to go on a snipe hunt. How unfortunate! Because in reality, life is full of struggles. In fact, most people’s lives are defined by their struggles. Recently I interviewed a former NFL quarterback about his approach to the blitz. He said something along the lines of, “One of the most important parts is to expect and prepare for the blitzes. If you are surprised or shocked that you are getting blitzed, then you are in the wrong job.”

No doubt life is full of struggles. And we are most likely to get tripped up when shocked and awed that struggles happen. Jesus promised that there would be hard times in this world (John 16:33). And if we let the anti-problem-feel-good-culture determine our response to challenges, then we’ve done a tremendous disservice to our kids. Instead, we need to give them a healthy perspective on suffering, so that when the hard times come, they will be able to “stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13).

A quick survey of scripture shows the importance of perseverance played out with a wide range of words. Even a neophyte etymologist knows that the number of words used to describe an idea in a culture shows the importance of that word to the culture. For example, words like lettuce, dough, dinero, coin, cash, C-notes, greenbacks, gravy, bucks, bacon, bones, Benjamins, bills, beans, bread, moolah, smackeroos, and the lesser known “Dead Presidents,” are all used to describe money, thus revealing our great American love affair with the medium. Now back to the concept of perseverance: In the ESV translation of the New Testament, about a dozen different Greek words are used for the word “endure.” These words all carry ideas like bearing up under, holding out, standing one’s ground, remaining steadfast, to carry a burden, sustain, put up with, persist, or, my favorites, “a state of remaining tranquil while awaiting an outcome” (used in Colossians 1:11), and “to maintain a belief or course of action in the face of opposition” (Hebrews 12:3).

When Jesus uses the word “endure,” he tells his followers that persevering is so important it has a role in salvation, saying, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” He also uses the word in the parable of the sower, illustrating how some seed “falls away” when hard times come, rather than enduring.

Perseverance is important in the Bible, but how do you “endure” or “bear up” through life’s difficulties? Pastor and author Tim Keller illustrates how subjective our “suffering” can be when he tells the story of two people in the same job. It is an incredibly tedious job, consisting of placing one widget on top of another, and moving it down the line, thousands of times a day. The first person is terribly exhausted by the thought of doing such a task for one more minute. The job has them on the verge of depression, a mental breakdown seems imminent, it gets so bad he considers watching an episode of Downton Abbey to numb the pain. However the second person happily works away with no hint of unhappiness. They seem utterly pleased with their work and can’t wait to show up each day. What’s the difference? The first person is paid minimum wage, while the second is promised a million dollars for one month of work.

Downton Abbey... take me away!

Downton Abbey… take me away!

Bottom line: If you feel the pain is worth the results, you can endure some pretty horrible things. Anyone who has ever climbed a mountain, ran a marathon, or taken a Lamaze class understands this.

No doubt perseverance is an important teaching in Scripture, best modeled in Jesus’ life, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2b). He knew that the great glory of dying for humanity was worth infinitely more than the pain he had to endure on the cross. Perseverance is important, and it is counter cultural, so how does this apply to parenting? What can you do to pass on a proper perspective on perseverance to your kids?

Things to do:

  1. Don’t finish everything for them: Like a butterfly struggling out of a cocoon, the struggle brings life. Cutting the struggle short stunts development. Let them finish some things on their own. Even if they do not turn out perfect. Would you have learned anything if everything was done for you?
  2. Let them fail: It really is ok if they do not place first in everything. They can go out on a limb a bit and try something that will stretch them. And you don’t have to rescue them when the going gets tough. Let them learn perseverance on their own.
  3. Encourage them in their failures: When they are ready to quit, make sure to encourage them to keep going. The NFL quarterback I mentioned earlier, Jeff Kemp, had a great cheerleader in his Dad. Even though Jeff was second or third string in High School and College, his dad would often say, “Keep practicing hard. You’re throwing great. Be ready when your number is called. You are a leader. Be a leader. You are a Kemp. Kemps are leaders.” All of this had a profound effect on Jeff and was the reason he made it to the NFL. He came to understand the importance of perseverance, thanks to a dad who believed in him and helped him understand himself rightly.
  4. Give them a healthy self-esteem: A friend of mine, Jim Mitchell says, “We need to stop thinking of self esteem in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, rather we need to think in terms of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy.’ There are both good and bad reasons to think of yourself as good and bad.” Scripture says you are made in God’s image (good) but it also says we are full of sin (bad). Both are true. It also says we shouldn’t boast in riches (bad) and that we shouldn’t think too lowly of ourselves (good – or bad…). So there are a number of reasons biblically for seeing yourself from a variety of perspectives. Are you helping your kids see themselves from a proper biblical perspective? Make sure to counter-balance any of their unbiblical self-perceptions with biblical truth.
  5. Model perseverance in your parenting: The best place to start is by modeling it in your own life. Are you the kind of guy who quits easily with your kids? Or do you stay engaged when you’d rather be trimming your toenails? I’ve been working on a tree house for my kids for the last 2 years. There are plenty of days I’ve wanted to quit. In fact, at every stage I’ve wanted to quit, but the half-finished lumber bolted to the tree is too much of a reminder of my quitterness tendencies. So I press on. I have no delusions to think my kids will ever say, “I’m so thankful for the way Dad modeled endurance in building the tree house. Because of his example I am able to stay focused on my studies at Harvard so that I can one day care for street children suffering from Malaria in Africa.” But I certainly hope that somehow, as I’m working out the character quality in my own heart, it becomes emphasized in their lives as well.

Amazing doesn’t happen automatically. Growth takes time and requires overcoming struggles. Resist the temptation to make life too easy for your kids. We live in a world where so much is handed to them. But even Warren Buffett recognizes the value of letting kids earn their own way. Start by modeling perseverance in your own life. What is one area where you are tempted to give up? What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Pray about how you can take one step this week to “bear up under” the temptation to quit.


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