Babies who watch their parents struggle and succeed are more determined, a new study shows.

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Slacker parents beware: Your babies may follow in your footsteps

Don’t quit, parents. When 15-month-old babies watched a grown-up try hard to solve a problem, they were twice as persistent at tackling a tricky puzzle themselves, a new study shows. The work suggests that perseverance can be learned at a very young age, especially if parents let their babies see them break a sweat.

Research dating back to the 1980s suggests that children can learn “grit” from their parents. But this is the first experiment to show that babies this young are already absorbing those lessons, says Irina Mokrova, a developmental scientist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who was not involved in the new work.

The study took place in Boston’s Children’s Museum, where parents with babies were recruited on-site. Julia Leonard, a developmental psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, took an infant and its caregiver into a room equipped with toys, a booster seat, and video cameras that captured the baby’s behavior. Facing the seated infant, Leonard got the child’s attention by trying to pull a plastic frog out of a container sealed with a concealed flap. Next, she played with a keychain full of colorful keys that could be removed only by opening a metal lever.

With some babies, Leonard spent 30 seconds pretending she didn’t know how to solve these puzzles. She visibly struggled, and even asked the infants for help. With a second group, she spent those same 30 seconds effortlessly solving the toy puzzles, three times apiece.

Next, Leonard showed both groups of babies a music box and activated it using a concealed switch. She handed the infant the box once it fell silent, then left them in the room with a parent, who was instructed to sit quietly nearby. For the next 2 minutes, the team watched the babies play with the musicmakers.

Both groups of babies attempted to get the box to make music, by hitting a large, nonfunctional button. But babies who had observed Leonard struggling with her own toys hit the button roughly twice as many times, the team reports today in Science. The study suggests that after watching adults succeed only a few times, “the babies can learn that effort is worth it, and that they should try harder than they would in other contexts,” Leonard says. Next, the team plans to test whether infants retain such lessons long-term, she says. 

Mokrova cautions that the study had a small sample size—68 infants in the two groups, plus 34 in a control group. Yet she gives props to the team for actually conducting controlled experiments with the children rather than just observing them behaving naturally, with no tests, she says.

Since the 1990s, many psychologists have emphasized the importance of self-control to being persistent, Mokrova says. But this study addresses another key to perseverance and hard work: the internal drive that inspires a child to acquire new knowledge and skills. Unlike self-control, which requires great effort to maintain, an internal drive is a “source of seemingly unlimited energy,” she says. And that could be critical to success later in life.