Babies learn benefits of hard work by witnessing parents persevering with difficult tasks, finds study

‘In modern, industrialised cultures, children learn primarily by being instructed in knowledge and skills that adults have already mastered; in such contexts, children may assume that most things come easily to adults’

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent
Friday 22 September 2017 08:41
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The infants tried to solve a problem twice as many times as those who saw an adult succeed at their task without apparent effort
The infants tried to solve a problem twice as many times as those who saw an adult succeed at their task without apparent effort

Babies appear to learn the benefits of hard work or “grit” by witnessing their parents persevering with difficult tasks, according to a new study.

After watching an adult struggle but then succeed in a task, such as opening a container, babies would make greater efforts to get a music box to play by pushing a button the researchers had mischievously deactivated for the purposes of the test.

The infants, aged 13 to 18 months, pressed the button up to twice as many times as those who saw an adult succeed at their task without apparent effort.

The researchers said that children in industrialised societies normally learn by being instructed in skills that “adults have already mastered”.

And they warned this might lead them to assume that “most things come easily to adults”.

Writing in the journal Science, Julia Leonard, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and colleagues described what happened during the tests.

“We tested the hypothesis that infants who saw even a couple of examples of an adult working hard to achieve her goals would persist longer on a novel task than those who saw an adult succeed effortlessly,” they wrote.

“In experiment one, the experimenter made eye contact with the infant, greeted the infant by name, and used child-directed speech throughout.

“In the ‘effort’ condition, the experimenter picked up a container with a toy inside, announced her intention (‘Look, there’s something inside of there! I want to get it out!’), then worked to open the container, narrating her attempts as she proceeded (‘Hmm…I wonder how I can get my toy out of here? Does this work? No, how about this…’)”

It took 30 seconds of work by the adult to finally get the toy or remove a toy keychain from a carabiner. However, in the “no effort” test, the tasks were completed within 10 seconds and then repeated twice.

“The experimenter [then] introduced the infant to a music box with a button. The button was easy for infants to press, but inert,” the paper said.

“The experimenter said, ‘Now it’s your turn to play with a toy. See this toy! This toy makes music!’

“The experimenter placed the toy out of the infant’s sight and activated the music toy using a hidden button … the experimenter then handed the toy to the infant and left the room.”

After two minutes, or if the baby handed the music box to her parent or threw it down three times, the test was ended.

The researchers noted that trying hard despite failures was an important life skill, saying “persistence, above and beyond IQ, is associated with long-term academic outcomes”.

And they warned modern societies might not be passing on this lesson effectively.

“In modern, industrialised cultures, children learn primarily by being instructed in knowledge and skills that adults have already mastered; in such contexts, children may assume that most things come easily to adults,” they wrote.

“In investigating infants’ ability to learn persistence from adult models, we do not mean to suggest that observing adult models is the only or best way for children to learn the value of persistence.

“Its value may also be communicated by explicit messages about the importance of hard work or simply observing that adults fulfil their responsibilities.

“Nonetheless, the current study suggests the potential value in letting children ‘see you sweat’. Showing children that hard work works might encourage them to work hard too.”

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