Infants Can Learn the Value of Perseverance by Watching Adults

After observing grown-ups struggling with tasks, 1-year-old babies make more effort themselves.

Ji Young-jun poses with his baby after winning the men's marathon at the 16th Asian Games.
Ji Young-jun poses with his baby after winning the men's marathon at the 16th Asian Games. (Michael Dalder / Reuters)

There exists a seemingly infinite stream of self-help articles that advise parents on how to raise kids with grit—children who persevere in the face of challenges. The offered wisdom ranges from the generically obvious (Praise the process! Use positive words!) to the bizarrely specific (Create an obstacle course!).

But perhaps the simplest way of instilling persistence in your kids is to persist yourself—and let them see you doing it. According to a new study by Julia Leonard, Yuna Lee, and Laura Schulz at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, even 1-year-old infants can draw lessons from such unspoken, undirected demos. When they see adults persisting at a challenging task, they themselves try harder when faced with an unrelated problem. As the team writes, “Showing children that hard work works might encourage them to work hard too.”

“We’ve all seen children struggle and give up when doing homework or putting on a shoe,” says Leonard. “Effort is a limited resource, and we wanted to know when children learn to make that effort. What are they paying attention to when deciding when to put in more time?” Their parents, probably. Other researchers have looked at how babies who are dealing with challenges respond to praise or support from their parents. But Leonard and her colleagues looked at how babies respond to their parents’ own struggles.

She and Lee went to the MIT PlayLab at the Boston Children’s Museum and recruited 103 visiting infants, aged 13 to 18 months. As the babies watched, Leonard tried to retrieve a toy from a container, and detach some keys from a carabiner, narrating her efforts along the way. In front of some babies, she succeeded at each task immediately, performing each three times in the span of 30 seconds. In front of others, she spent the same period struggling, and only retrieved the toy and keys just before the time ran out.

“Now it’s your turn to play with a toy,” she said to the infants. She then handed them a music box that she had already activated. The box came with a large, conspicuous, and completely useless button. Pressing it did nothing, but it was the act of pressing that mattered. Leonard found that babies who had seen her struggling with her own objects prodded the button more often than those who had seen her succeed effortlessly. They had inferred that hard work pays.

Leonard learned the same lesson herself. Her results came in just as psychologists were starting to grapple with their reproducibility crisis—a deep concern that many of the results in published papers might be unreliable due to poorly-designed studies and sloppy practices. To weed out such results, many psychologists have said that their field should put more emphasis on replication—repeating studies to check if their findings hold up. Others believe that more experiments should be preregistered—that is, scientists should specify their research plans ahead of time, and stick to them, obviating the temptation to fiddle with their studies on the fly in ways that guarantee exciting but ultimately misleading results.

So after Leonard had spent a year studying the value of persistence, her advisor Laura Schulz told her to do the experiment again. “It was a very meta moment,” she says. She recruited another 120 infants, and she preregistered her plans. And to her delight, she got exactly the same results.

Critically, the babies were learning a mindset from the adults, rather than a specific set of actions. “It’s a nice case study of infants making rich abstract inferences from sparse data,” says Schulz. They saw Leonard fiddling with a container and a carabiner, but then generalized her behavior to a completely different toy that they had never seen before—a music box. They weren’t just learning about containers and carabiners; they were drawing broader inferences about the value of hard work. “It fits with a lot of prior research showing that infants are good at imitating adults’ goals,” says Liz Gunderson from Temple University, “but it goes one step further in showing that infants can imitate adults’ persistence toward a goal.”

This isn’t quite the same as the much-hyped concept of “grit,” which is more of a stable, long-term character trait. “A lot of the work on grit and persistence focuses on school-age children,” says Leonard. “We wanted to go younger and look at the foundations of that behavior.”

“For an infant, energy is limited and almost everything is difficult,” says Shari Liu from Harvard University. “They’re learning to walk, talk, and build increasingly complex understandings of the world. So moment to moment, infants have to decide how best to invest their effort. This study shows that they look to adults to help guide these decisions.”

Liu also notes that the infants didn’t become less persistent if they saw an adult succeed easily at a task. “They don’t devalue persistence from seeing adults succeed easily, but they do learn to value persistence from seeing adults work hard,” she says. “They appear to understand that adults are more competent than they are, and do not become discouraged when they see adults succeed easily.”

Can parents make use of these findings to teach their kids to stay the course? “That’s the million-dollar question and we don’t presume to have an answer from a single lab experiment,” Leonard says. “The most powerful message to me is that infants are watching our behavior very carefully and paying attention to what we do. We know that as a parent, you don’t want to struggle too much in front of your kid. But maybe that’s not a great idea. Maybe it’s good to let your kids see you struggle.”

Indeed, Leonard found that it was important to engage with the infants as she struggled with her objects. In her experiments, she always addressed the babies, looked at them, and narrated her efforts as she went. When she went through the same motions, without narration or eye contact, she got much weaker results. What does that mean for societies or families where adult struggles are opaque and hidden from children?

“We’d be interested in hearing from people: If you try harder in front of your kid, do they try harder, too?” says Leonard.