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He is 14 years old. I have observed in his study of mathematics, he tries for some time, but then gives up sooner than one should (if the problem seems difficult). I guess just telling him to try harder won't work (just telling it plainly doesn't seem to work anyway).

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You could ask him to think out loud while he tries to solve a problem. This could help you identify possible weaknesses in his approach. –  Dave Clarke Sep 15 '12 at 8:31
    
I would start by trying to understand why he gives up. He is young, yet, but maybe he understands his problems and wants to tell you. If not, observe him: does he give up easily in other fields also? If not, then he needs a tutor, not more perseverance. If yes, then what else is going on in his life? Is he happy in his family, in school, with his teachers or friends, is he in love, does he have to deal with the onset of puberty, etc.? After you understand his situation, and the solution to his maths problems doesn't prensent itself, only then would I try any of the tips given here. –  user3140 Sep 19 '12 at 19:54
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5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Giving up is not necessarily a bad thing, providing you are giving up on a certain approach to a problem, and not the problem altogether. Knowing when to give up, and figuring out what to try next instead are important problem solving skills. In other words, if you've been sitting there staring at a math problem for 10 minutes without success, chances are that sitting there staring at it for an hour isn't going to help.

Teach him some strategies to try when he gets stuck:

  • Go back and review material.
  • Practice some of the easier problems that led up to the hard one.
  • Ask someone for help.
  • Take a break.
  • Break the problem up into smaller pieces.
  • Make a list of specific reasons you're getting stuck, and address them one by one.
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Thanks for the suggestions and another viewpoint to look at it. –  user13107 Sep 16 '12 at 13:15
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A few years ago, a study was done on students that observed student response to how they were praised about their school work. The study found that students who were praised with phrases like, "You're so smart!" or "Look how clever you are!" were more likely to give up when confronted with a problem that they found difficult. Students who were praised with phrases like, "Good work! I know that problem was really difficult, but you stuck with it and found the answer" were more likely to be more resilient, were more likely to take extra work home, and more likely to say that they enjoyed the work. You can read a quick synopsis on the article here.

Really, I think that it comes down to building self-confidence in your child--so that they believe that they can work through a difficult problem and they're not ashamed to ask for help if they get stuck.

This website has some good suggestions on helping develop a "don't give up" work ethic in your child. They suggest:

  1. Define perseverance with your child.
  2. Teach "don't give up" words.
  3. Model effort and a strong work ethic.
  4. Start a family, "Never give up!" motto.
  5. Create a "Stick to It" award.

At his age, it might help to get him involved in a sport or activity that encourages and rewards perseverance. Martial arts comes to mind just off the top of my head.

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Thanks a lot for these suggestions! I will check out the links. For some reason the pscychology-today link seems unreachable. may be glitch at my end. (Sorry, can't upvote because not enough reputation.) –  user13107 Sep 15 '12 at 4:24
    
You might just try typing "smart vs hard-work study" into a search engine and see what comes up. That's the phrase I used. –  Meg Coates Sep 15 '12 at 4:32
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The saying I've used with my kids is basically, "What's the most important thing to do when you fall? Get back up. Everybody falls. The strong get back up." It started with skating & skiing but it applies, in a more abstract sense, to everything that doesn't work out the first time. –  Brian White Oct 16 '12 at 21:12
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Discretion is the better part of valor.

Sometimes, it actually is okay to give up on something - completely. The key is knowing what you're giving up and why, and what the consequences of giving up are.

Here's the type of questions I would ask. Let's use Mathematics as an example:

  • Why does he want to give up math? Is it hard? Perhaps he needs more guidance. Is it not hard enough? Perhaps he needs better challenges. Is it boring? Are there simply better things to do? Is it not important enough?
  • What does 'gives up' mean? Is he not completing assignments? Is he stopping problems after the first few steps are done? Is he not going to class? Is he taking the books home? What symptoms tell you he's not giving what he should?
  • What does he want to be when he grows up? If it's an astronaut, he'll pretty much need high marks in math. If he wants a good job, the marks themselves might not be important, but understanding the concepts and exercising the problem solving skills definitely will be!
  • Is he aware of how you feel? Even if you can't tell him what you think he should do, maybe it will come naturally (you know him better than we do) if you guys just sit down and have a 'man-to-man' talk (or maybe you're his mom and can have a similar talk :) ).

I'll try to expand more on this later if I can get back to it =)

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Thanks for answering. By giving up I mean giving up on some of the harder/longer problems. Say there are 20 problems in an assignment, he'd solve 17 correctly but would not try others beyond a certain point of time. Even if I get his older brother to help him in solving the problem, he's not much interested understanding in how the solution was arrived at. Thanks for your other suggestions too! –  user13107 Sep 16 '12 at 13:20
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It sounds like he may need help with his math, not encouragement to try harder. Just telling him to try harder isn't going to help if he doesn't understand it, so get him some help:

  • Talk to his teacher. Explain how he is having trouble with the harder problems, and is getting frustrated because he really wants to solve them. A teacher's usually glad to help a student who wants to learn
  • Work with him. If you or someone close to you is good at math sit with him and help solve the problem. He needs help, not encouragement
  • Teach him to find help with math on the web. There's loads of math tutoring sites like Math.com that offer free help. It's not important that he solves the problems on his own all the time, learning how to help himself is empowering and good for self-confidence. As long as he learns the techniques he needs to do well on tests who cares how he learns?
  • Try to find practical applications. My mother had me practice my math by balancing her checkbook and that taught me more than one lesson

As to how to keep him from quitting in general, so much of it is about self confidence, building his self-confidence is key. If he learns that hard work brings success and reward then you'll get more hard work. So praise and hard work and perseverance. Start easier, than give him more and more challenging things to do, and encourage him to think of his own challenges.

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He may be lacking grit.

Here's a good pair of articles about it: Grit Is More Important Than Talent and The Dilemma of Coaching Yourself.

Here's a nice list of things to look out for to optimize your willpower. Unfortunately it's not straightforward. On the other hand, if it was easy it wouldn't be a problem :-)

I'm convinced that the human spirit is malleable and therefore with some coaching willpower can be improved, at least somewhat. Learning to cope with failure seems like a good approach.

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Very good resources you've included! I've not heard of "grit" as a discrete psychological characteristic before, but the idea is very interesting. I came across this TED talk by one of the main modern researchers of the topic that is worth a watch. –  Beofett Oct 17 '12 at 12:24
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