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My eight year-old has an issue with perseverance and planning. We thought playing minecraft would help. If you're not familiar with minecraft, it's a game where you gather resources to build things, while fighting or avoiding dangers like monsters and lava. He loves the game, understands the mechanics of it very well for his age, and would spend every waking hour playing it if we let him.

The problem is, he's really bad at the planning part of the game. A typical line of thought for someone his age with his level of understanding of the game mechanics (which I know from observing his cousins) is:

  • I keep getting killed by monsters.
  • I need to make some armor.
  • I'll sleep or stay somewhere safe at night in the meantime so I won't get killed as much.
  • I need a bunch of leather to make armor.
  • I need to raise cows in order to get leather.
  • I need to plant some wheat to feed the cows.
  • I need a fence to keep the cows from wandering away.
  • I need a chest to keep my stuff safe, so I don't lose everything if I get killed.
  • I will work on all these things, making adjustments as I go, until I have my armor.
  • I will plan the next steps to get more powerful armor.

My son's line of thought goes something like this:

  • I keep getting killed by monsters.
  • I will spend two minutes making a wooden sword.
  • I'm still getting killed all the time by monsters, and it's too much work making a new sword, so I'll just try to punch them.
  • Wander around not committing at all to gathering resources, because I'm just going to lose them all the next time I get attacked.

I realize this is just a game, but it's indicative of real-life problems he has with a defeatist attitude and a failure to persevere and adapt when things get difficult. We were hoping the low-risk/high-motivation aspects of the game would help give him a safe platform for learning these skills.

What generally causes these sorts of problems? What activities can we do in-game or out to help him overcome them?

  • "[He] understands the mechanics of it very well for his age [8 years]": Why would age matter in this case at all? It seems to me like exploring the game would increase your understanding, not just getting older. I can't imagine age to be strongly positively correlated with understanding the mechanics of especially this type of game. – bjb568 Jun 15 '15 at 18:13
  • There are some Minecraft mod packs that come with a quest book which will give you a list of things to do with a view to completing them all. While they aren't designed to be played hardcore most will let you play with unlimited respawns. They can normally be played in a group if you want to help him. If you look up 'agrarian skies' it is one of the most popular ones and has been around long enough that a second is being made. It also has many lets plays made of it showing others playing that might help if he gets stuck – Gilsham Jun 17 '15 at 4:25
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How did you get to be good at the planning part of the game?

More than likely, through experience. Even for a naturally gifted strategist such as myself, I didn't know how to plan strategy at eight years old. In fact, I can tell you exactly when I learned: around ten years old.

That's when I learned to beat my dad at chess. My dad wasn't particularly good, looking back on things; but he was good enough that it was hard to beat him without some concept of planning or strategy.

That's when I started being good at many strategy games: chess, Risk, etc. All of that picked up right about the same time in terms of my going from playing at random to playing with a plan.

So, my suggestion: let it come with experience. Keep letting/having him play minecraft. If you play competitively, play competitively - beat him. Soundly. Over and over again. Explain (at least to some degree) what you did to win - but don't push him to do the same (as you undoubtedly know, pushing never works).

Keep exhibiting the behavior you want him to learn. Talk about it. My dad talked about how he beat me in chess, fairly often, and when I started to think I could do better, I asked for books and other assistance improving my game. I saw his strategic abilities and wanted to emulate them. He never let me win, or took it easy on me - once I understood the rules, every game was 100% full speed. I lost to Qxf7++ more time than I can count before I figured out I had to protect against it - but that made me want to do it ever more.

As he plays, he'll learn what strategies work and what don't. He'll learn that planning pays off. He'll learn strategies you've never thought of, and then eventually be proud of himself when things really start to click. And that's when he'll learn the payoff of perseverance - when he starts to win because of it. It might even be random - maybe he has a lucky game where he punches better than usual, or has less monsters spawn near him, and has time to build that first set of armor or weapon. Either way, he'll see how effective it is, and want to follow that up with more of the same.

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    Even better than telling him what you did to win; tell him what you're GOING to do to win. This is about planning after all; even if you share your entire strategy throughout the game, you will still win unless your opponent uses your given information to formulate a BETTER strategy. (In which case you still win, you just lose the game) – Erik Jun 16 '15 at 6:33
  • For me, it would read "More than likely, through strategy guides and Nintendo Power". I didn't have a person to show me how to accomplish the tasks better, but I had access to books that showed me. – user11394 Jul 9 '15 at 20:18
  • Well, that's even better - nowadays in particular - given access to strategy guides on the internet is free and easy! – Joe Jul 9 '15 at 20:19
  • Yup! Eventually, after reading enough guides and playing the games, I had a feel for what worked and what didn't in a variety of different games. I needed to have a good bit of groundwork knowledge of potential strategies in order to tackle games on my own without assistance. So, your answer of "Exhibiting the behavior" is key for me, even in the context of winning games. – user11394 Jul 9 '15 at 20:23
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I had a really hard time with this sort of thing myself, when I was young. My dad taught me chess then, with the same "full speed" method that I saw mentioned in another answer. I gave up, and hated chess for years, because at the time I felt like my dad was just rubbing it in my face and not really helping me be better at chess (which was partly true and partly false, I think). The problem I remember having was that I could not envision what a successful chess game was supposed to look like. This is because I never actually won at chess against my dad, he only showed me how to move the pieces and then proceeded to brutally slaughter me, hoping that I would just get determined enough to figure it out. I wanted to figure it out, but I couldn't see the endgame that I was shooting for, so I gave up.

I have a different school on this whole thing. I think of mother cats teaching their kittens to hunt. They start out catching a wounded mouse and letting them play with it, so that they can get the taste of the kill. This is important for some kids. They may not comprehend how to play the game until they can win a full game with opening, middle, and endgame...even if it is easier. Once an easier win is accomplished, they have a 'template' from which to analyze and improve on future failure. I stayed away from chess for almost 15 years after my dad tried to teach me, until I got this template playing online. After that, my chess skills improved quickly and I finally beat my dad at chess.

My problem wasn't that I lacked intelligence, or the desire, or even the quality of persistence. My problem was that I literally could not see what the endgame was supposed to look like. I have to be able to envision the future before I can work towards it. Perhaps your son has the qualities, but doesn't know what the successful version of his game should or could look like. In which case, my answer would be to show him a taste of what proper planning can achieve, and then see what he makes of it once he realizes how powerful it can be.

  • So, converting your example into MineCraft, the parent should either: 1) build the armor to demonstrate the importance, or 2) setup everything so that the child merely needs to do a few simple things to get the armor. Either way, they are closer to the endgame and can form a template for a strategy. – Moby Disk Jun 16 '15 at 4:33
  • Option 1 is the one that I am thinking. Let him watch you play the game, and when the same monsters kill you in the same way, start building up the farm for cows. Maybe at first he won't understand, but then when you have the cool armor and you are beating the snot out of everything...he'll see what the work is worth. If he starts watching other videos to figure out how to construct other, better items...then you're golden. – Guest Jun 16 '15 at 8:52
  • @guest I would point out that minecraft is not the best game for beating the snot out of monsters. Even once you are geared up quite well you tend to find that monsters can be a reasonable hassle unless you also play reasonably well. They are not super hard but compared to some games where once you are geared up the basic monsters can go ahead hitting you for hours before doing any damage a minecraft mob will take down a well geared player within minutes or seconds if the player just stands there. – DRF Jun 23 '15 at 12:03
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My youngest was at a disadvantage with Minecraft compared to her elder siblings - they already had strategic thinking and a competitive streak, but when she tried to play with them it was the same story you describe, Karl.

Our solution - give her a creative only server (ie one with monsters turned off) to practice on. Over the space of about 2 months she worked out everything, including some lovely architectural constructs.

Then we let her back into the competitive world her brother and sister fought in - and she loves it.

Try it - it takes the pressure off them for a wee while, and allows them to see what they can create.

  • Certainly not a bad idea - maybe this gives him the chance he needs to realize it's fun to create armor/etc. and then when he comes back to the combat-live server he has more incentive to try to build up armor/etc. – Joe Jun 15 '15 at 16:56
  • He had been on creative for several months. That's how he understands the mechanics so well. He actually asked to go back on survival, because he missed fighting the monsters. – Karl Bielefeldt Jun 15 '15 at 18:56
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    Note there is a difference between "creative" (where you have infinite free blocks) and "peaceful" (where you play the survival game without the monsters, but still need to gather all the items) and that the latter is probably a better training world. Optionally, you can also get a mod and disable the tougher enemies to make it easier on him while still having the "fight monsters" option. – Erik Jun 16 '15 at 6:35
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I had/have a similar problem with my 10-year old son. He also plays Minecraft and once wanted to connect to his friend's server. Obviously, he typed in the server name wrongly and the connection could not be established. After several failed attempts (this whole thing lasted for less than 5 minutes), he told me that he'd try one more time and give up.

These are all symptoms of the lack of perseverance.

There are several things, which I do in order to help him overcome this problem.

Step one: Observe how the level of the emotional arousal increases

My child has several "regimes":

  1. Normal, constructive one.
  2. Agitated (starts hitting the keyboard, clicking more than necessary).
  3. Devastated (cries).

Note that he can't go directly from the calm state (1) to crying (3). It's not an on-off thing, it's a curve.

If you pay attention, how he goes up the curve of emotional arousal, you can stop him at the agitated state and then lead back to the normal. One strategy is to make him aware of his state and tell him that one part of being a Ninja (or whoever is his favorite superhero) is to control himself.

Another one is this:

Step two: Send him a subliminal message that he is not in danger

You can do it with changing the speed and/or pitch of your voice. It's important that your way of talking is different from his at the moment he is freaking out.

Another options (if he is comfortable with it) is to hug or touch him.

Step three: Tell him the embarassing facts without beautifying them

Right after you made attempts of calming him at the emotional level, you can reinforce the effect by engaging his rational mind by saying

  1. Technology is imperfect.
  2. It's supposed to malfunction sometimes.
  3. Edison did 10000 failed attempts at inventing a lightbulb, so trying to connect to your friend's server for 5 minutes isn't that bad.

Step four: Show him the right thing to do

If he didn't smash the keyboard by now, you had some success. Now you can

  1. either tell him, what constructive things he can do (e. g. ask his friend to send him a screenshot of the server settings) or, better,
  2. help him come up with constructive solutions himself.

The right thing to do is, of course, to generate some solution ideas.

Step five: Follow-up

After 1-2 days, talk with him about the experience:

  1. If it was positive (he achieved his goal by not giving up), you can tell him that not giving up pays off (he didn't give up and got the fun of playing with his friend as a result).
  2. If it was worse than it could be, you can encourage him to talk about what he could do different in a similar situation in future.

Step six: Repeat

From time to time, talk with him about persistence in different, ideally non-obvious ways. Biographies of great people (most of them worked hard), movies, activities (incl. but not limited to video games), metaphors. The important thing is that such skills can be developed through repetition only.

You may set yourself a reminder (e. g. in Evernote) that in X weeks/months you want to give your child another lesson in persistence.

One more idea: Consider buying a Minecraft realm (or setting up a local Minecraft server) and play the game together with your son (so that both of you are in the same world). The benefit is that in this case you can show him by your example, how to plan.

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    You should probably not teach kids that "technology is supposed to fail sometimes". Technology or hardware failure is almost never the issue and should be the LAST thing to assume. It's almost always user error. – Erik Jun 16 '15 at 6:38
  • @Erik But sometimes the error is caused by the user you have no control over (ISP in the case of a network failure...) – Erbureth says Reinstate Monica Jun 17 '15 at 7:27
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    @Erbureth Yes, but it's far more likely to be on your end. And if it's on your end and you assume it's on the other end, you're going to waste a lot of time in getting it fixed. Always start by doing everything you can on your end BEFORE you start thinking about the issue being on the other end. It'll save you a lot of time and frustration. – Erik Jun 17 '15 at 7:36
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There are two types of lessons a child can learn from trying something and failing: either to keep trying it until he gets it; or, that it's actually okay to fail. That is, despite what his parents/teachers have been telling him, the world didn't end just because he gave up/didn't finish/flunked a course. Or, nothing really bad happened when he failed, trying hard is frustrating, so why bother trying so hard next time?

If a child fails at something he really wants, over and over, he may learn he's not good enough to have what he wants, and lower his expectations accordingly. And he may also learn that he can't trust his parents when they tell him he can do it, because they're always wrong.

It sounds like your son's had a lot of experience with giving up, to the point where that's become his go-to strategy. You want your son to learn to keep trying, but you can't learn to persist until you've seen persistence work for you. To make that happen for your son, you not only have to teach him that he can succeed if he persists, but you also have to get him to abandon something -- giving up -- that he has become comfortable with.

The way to do that is not to keep challenging him with something complicated until he pulls himself up by his boot straps and figures it out. Yes, it worked for his cousins, but people are different; your (ADHD?) son doesn't have the same type of brain as his cousins, so you shouldn't have the same expectations. (I am sure that showing a kid people swimming in a swimming pool and then throwing the kid into the swimming pool until he learns to swim would work for some large fraction of kids; but others would drown.)

Instead, I'd give him little tiny one-step challenges he can master. E.g., build him a small house in Minecraft, so he has somewhere to stay safe at night, and then challenge him to do a bunch of easy things: Mine wood. Plant a sapling. Make the house bigger. Make a chest.

When he's mastered all these individual tasks, I'd challenge him to slightly more complicated things (make a garden with a fence? make a furnace? make armor?), etc., but first I'd try to get him comfortable with his new, persistent self by pointing out all his recent successes and telling him it's an outgrowth of his old self. Tell him that people's brains get stronger and smarter when they get older. Just like when he was three, he couldn't add 4 plus 5, but now he can; and just like of course he can't change a car tire himself right now, but he'll be able to when he's eighteen... he's gotten better at persisting because his brain is getting stronger. And the more practice he gets with difficult things, the smarter and stronger his brain will get.

For even more complicated tasks (bookcases?), I would ask him to write down all the steps he's going to need. Tell him you'll check his list when he's done, before he starts the task. That way he can feels safe when he's extending himself to something tougher, and won't have to worry about failing. This works even better outside Minecraft. I get my daughter to do quite complicated things when I get her to write down all the steps first and check them for her. And she gets to take the credit, since it was her list (even though I helped her check it), and she did it.

Also try to make sure, at least for now, that he never gets put in positions where he's likely to fail. He needs to build up confidence in succeeding, for a while.

Additionally, try to show him that failure now doesn't mean giving up on a problem forever. E.g., sometimes sleeping on a problem means you find the answer easily the next day. Point out, when they happen, any situations (a leaky faucet?) where you have to give up momentarily and call in help from an expert. Point out that sometimes there is more than one way to solve a problem.

Finally, I'd suggest talking to him about problems you may have encountered and ask his advice. Get him used to being a problem solver. See if he has any neat ideas, and if so, try to implement them. E.g., "Your sister wants me to put up this picture but there isn't any room for it in the living room." He might suggest putting it up in her bedroom, and that would be something you could do then and there. Ask if he'll help. Or say, "I wanted us to watch this movie this weekend but it's too late now, it's time for bed." Hopefully he'll suggest doing it Saturday night, and you can say, "Great, good idea, we'll do it!"

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Interestingly, I have had this exact same experience with my own son. We would play Minecraft and he would not set any goals. I quickly gave up on trying to convince him to set goals and found out he'd rather work on creative mode and do whatever strikes his fancy. So, that's where we are with that.

However, he does play Pokemon as do many of his peers. Here I find he is competing with his friends and feels a need to accomplish things as his friends do. At home, I'll look up instructions for some complex activities on YouTube so he can watch them and learn.

At times he gets frustrated that a lot of work is involved. At this point I encourage him not to give up by asking him if he wants to achieve X like his friends did. He will say yes and then I suggest that instead of complaining about it he should decide to do what it takes or decide not to.

Invariably he'll buckle down and get the job done. At this point I'll ask him if it feels good to have made that accomplishment. He'll say yes. I'll ask if he appreciates the accomplishment more because it was difficult to achieve. Again, he'll usually say yes. If I ask if he is looking forward to show his friends he'll say yes again. I'll relate that many things in life are like that -- valuable because they require work to achieve.

Beyond that I'll let him connect the dots.

So, key points, find something that your child really wants to achieve. Lack of a goal makes perseverance hard to come by. Support their effort to achieve this but don't replace their effort with your own... but do give support or advice if requested. My view is that asking questions about their achievement and letting them figure out that perseverance can lead to good things works better than laying out the logic involved.

I have a tendency to explain/describe and have been working on myself to ask questions and go for self-realization. I notice that after asking questions on an issue at least once my son will develop some understanding in the area on his own and be more able to deal with related issues.

When I simply tell him how things work it gets dumped out as dad going on about something again. ;)

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