Years ago when I ran cross country, my favorite part of each race was the last minute. Legs numb and chest heaving, after two miles through the hills of East Texas, my body wanted to collapse. But at that point of utter exhaustion, as the finish line finally appeared in the distance, something magical always happened. I reached down into the grittiest part of the self and found a final push.
I hope you too have felt the flood of relief and accomplishment that accompanies perseverance. In my adult life, when I’ve wanted to quit—to back out, to cancel, to leave—sometimes I visualize that last minute, the tingling skin and pounding heart. Sometimes I actually jump on a treadmill, wanting to feel the sensations on my body again. To feel physically what I’m trying to achieve emotionally.
That’s exactly what I did yesterday. You see, my family has been in a season of perseverance lately. We’re all working towards goals that once felt far away, making it so tempting to quit and give up at varying points of exhaustion. But the finish line is now on the horizon. I can see it. And I hear familiar voices cheering, willing us to find the final push.
Perseverance was our “character study” focus this quarter. Of course. I selected it back in the fall, thinking that it would be a timely focus during a season when Ellie was learning to read and attempting new skills. Which was all true. What I didn’t think through was how it would parallel major life changes such as the completion of a PhD program and the move to a new state. As she watched us struggle and push through this season (and believe me, there have been low points), she’s seen us turn to others and to God for support, and now—praise Him—the end is in sight.
Perseverance is one of those character traits I didn’t much think of while growing up. It wasn’t glamorous like courage or lovely like kindness. Too closely associated with homework and sports, it seemed to be an abstract educational term—related with words such as “achievement” and “success.”
Until my freshman year of high school when my perseverance was finally tested … and it was found wanting. Armed with a legitimate excuse, I let fear direct my decision to back out of a commitment. I’ll never forget the sting of hearing a respected teacher tell me that I was “undependable.” Years later when the tables were turned, and I became the teacher, I too preferred working with students who were persevering, and therefore, dependable—don’t we all?
Maybe this is why in our excuse-making, helicopter-parenting, narcissistic culture, perseverance (aka grit) is rising in the ranks of significance among character traits. Two books I’ve recently read thoroughly explore this topic: How Children Succeed & Mindset (note: neither book provided a particularly enjoyable read, but both are throughly valuable in concept).
My take-away: it is essential to nurture perseverance in our children.
I feel this most strongly for those of us raising deep, sensitive souls who can be easily discouraged, which is why I’ve spent several months concentrating on this concept with Ellie. We’ve read about it in great books, practiced it on the soccer field, and claimed it during phonics lessons.
Then, just a couple weeks ago, while on a 5-mile walk/bike ride around our favorite lake, we reached a large hill that Ellie struggled to climb. I casually suggested that she jump off her bike, so we could push it up together.
“It’s no big deal,” I said, “You can just walk it.”
“No, Mama,” she puffed, “I’ve GOT to PER-SE-VERE.”
And that’s when I saw it, something a little like grit, when she clenched her teeth together and found a final push—all the way to the top.
Here are some ideas for encouraging PERSEVERANCE in your child:
Perseverance in Children’s Literature:
1. The Little Engine that Could: I know it’s cliché, but that’s only because we are so familiar with the story. It’s a classic for a reason: it offers a simple & sweet allegory that children can easily grasp. My girls particularly love the contrast between the old engine’s chant, “I can not, I can not …” with its melancholic rhythm, and the little engine’s hopeful, peppy mantra, “I think I can, I think I can.” It’s always a fun read!
2. Sally Jean, The Bicycle Queen: This is a fun book for girls who are learning to ride their bikes, and while perseverance is a main theme here, another is ingenuity, which I love! Sally’s parent’s can’t afford to buy her a new bicycle when she outgrows her beloved “flash,” so what does she do? Build her own!
3. A Little Princess: We have fallen in love with this beautiful book. I selected it as our read-aloud because of Sara Crewe’s perseverance in the face of incredible adversity, but what I didn’t realize was how the actual process of reading it would become a practice of perseverance for us. Although lovely, Burnett’s language wasn’t always easy for a five-year-old to grasp. I definitely had to stop and explain scenes, define words, and provide some historical context. But by the time we reached the end, Ellie was riveted, and we read the final four chapters in one sitting.
“She was so cold and hungry and tired that her face began to have a pinched look, and now and then some kind-hearted person passing her in the street glanced at her with sudden sympathy. But she did not know that. She hurried on, trying to make her mind think of something else. It was really very necessary. Her way of doing it was to ‘pretend’ and ‘suppose’ with all the strength that was left in her. But really this time it was harder than she had ever found it, and once or twice she thought it almost made her more cold and hungry instead of less so. But she persevered obstinately, and as the muddy water squelched through her broken shoes and the wind seemed trying to drag her thin jacket from her, she talked to herself as she walked, though she did not speak aloud or even move her lips. ‘Suppose I had dry clothes on,’ she thought. ‘Suppose I had good shoes and a long, thick coat and merino stockings and a whole umbrella. And suppose––suppose––just when I was near a baker’s where they sold hot buns, I should find a sixpence––which belonged to nobody. Suppose, if I did, I should go into the shop and buy six of the hottest buns and eat them all without stopping.'” – A Little Princess
Perseverance in Life Skills:
1. Learning to Read
2. Learning to Ride a Bike
3. Learning a Handicraft
Perseverance in Activities:
1. Nature Hiking
2. Completing a Project
3. Putting together a Puzzle
Perseverance in Commitments:
1. Commitment to a Team
2. Commitment to a Church/Group
3. Commitment to your Family
Can you think of other books or activities that help foster perseverance in our children? I would love to hear your ideas.