“I can’t do it! It’s too hard!”
Wiping my hands on a dish towel, I walk into the living room just as my son is pounding his fists on the piano keys.
How am I going to handle this one?
If you are a parent, you have likely encountered Dr. Carol Dweck’s ideas about people having either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset.
According to Dweck,
As a parent, I try to encourage my children to have a growth mindset.
One way I do this is by asking them to share something hard they have done each day.
My sons share their hard feats with pride and I always tell them about one of my challenges from the day.
But, when confronted with certain challenging situations (like playing a piano piece with both hands together for the first time), my sons still have meltdowns.
Right now I have a crying, red-faced 8-year-old boy on my hands. A lecture on the benefits of a growth mindset is not going to help.
He just wants to go play. In his eyes, he has served enough time on the piano bench.
Dr. Harvey Carp says it best on his website, The Happiest Toddler on the Block:
Many parents try to console their flailing, angry tot with logic and reason…but often that only makes things worse. That’s because even calm children often struggle to understand our long-winded explanations…and when they’re angry or frustrated, they may not be open to hearing even simple soothing comments.
Now my son is no longer a toddler, but I still recognize when he switches into caveman mode. There is no reasoning with him. It is time for stealth tactics.
In her book, Super Better, Dr. Jane McGonigal, a game designer and the first person in the world to get a Ph.D. studying the psychological strengths of gamers, says that a gameful approach can help you access your “heroic qualities, like willpower, compassion, and determination” (pg 1).
I believe this approach might also help children strengthen their ability to cope with difficult tasks.
Dr. McGonigal writes that being gameful means:
Bringing the psychological strengths you naturally display when you play games – such as optimism, creativity, courage, and determination – to your real life. It means having the curiosity and openness to play with different strategies to discover what works best. It means building up resilience to tackle tougher and tougher challenges with greater and greater success. (Super Better pg 3).
My purpose in adopting a gameful approach with my children is to help them take these skills and apply them to difficult school assignments, demanding extracurricular activities, and any other challenging situations they might face.
So, we return to my frustrated 8-year-old son at the piano.
I casually ask, “What’s the hardest thing about survival mode in Minecraft?”
My son stops crying and looks at me as if aliens have suddenly taken over my body (probably because my usual technique to get him to practice is to threaten to take away his iPad time).
When he finally decides body snatchers have not invaded our house, he answers my question.
I hear all about the skeletons, zombies and even spiders that attack at night when a gamer is in survival mode.
And I really listen.
“Why don’t you give up when all the bad guys start killing you?” I ask.
“Because I know I can figure out how to defeat them,” he answers.
“So, defeating a zombie is a bit like trying to play the piano with both hands.”
My son looks at me defensively.
“It’s a challenge. And something you won’t be able to do the first time you try.”
“I think you will make at least 10 mistakes when you play your piano piece today,” I tell my son, “but hopefully tomorrow you will only make 8, and then 6, and then 4…”
“I won’t make 10 mistakes,” my son interrupts.
“Of course you will. It’s really hard to play with both hands.”
Now I have him. I’ve issued a challenge and he is ready to prove me wrong.
And he does. He gets through the piece. He makes a few mistakes, but he feels good because it’s nowhere near the 10 mistakes I assumed he would make.
As our children face challenging tasks and situations let’s change the language we use with them.
What if we reframe hard tasks as challenges and opportunities for growth?
What if we look at teachers, parents, helpers, and friends as allies in the game?
What if we use power-ups (mini-breaks like drinking water, deep breathing, even doing pushups) to give us the energy we need to persevere?
And, what if we give our children a secret identity to help with the challenge?
My son is now Ollie, the piano buster…stay tuned for more exciting adventures tomorrow after school.