The Value of Struggle

Chinese schoolchildren during lessons at a classroom in Hefei, east China's Anhui province, in 2010.STR/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese schoolchildren during lessons at a classroom in Hefei, east China’s Anhui province, in 2010.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

About a month ago, I heard a story on NPR about some of the parenting differences between East and West. The basic idea was that the West places great value on being smart, while the East places great value on the struggle to succeed. There were two bits that really stuck with me.

The following is from Jim Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA who studies teaching and learning around the world.

“The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper,” Stigler explains, “and one kid was just totally having trouble with it. His cube looked all cockeyed, so the teacher said to him, ‘Why don’t you go put yours on the board?’ So right there I thought, ‘That’s interesting! He took the one who can’t do it and told him to go and put it on the board.’ ”

Stigler knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board. And so he watched with interest as the Japanese student dutifully came to the board and started drawing, but still couldn’t complete the cube. Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work, and shake their heads no. And as the period progressed, Stigler noticed that he — Stigler — was getting more and more anxious.

“I realized that I was sitting there starting to perspire,” he says, “because I was really empathizing with this kid. I thought, ‘This kid is going to break into tears!’ ”

But the kid didn’t break into tears. Stigler says the child continued to draw his cube with equanimity. “And at the end of the class, he did make his cube look right! And the teacher said to the class, ‘How does that look, class?’ And they all looked up and said, ‘He did it!’ And they broke into applause.” The kid smiled a huge smile and sat down, clearly proud of himself.

And another part of the story.

“We did a study many years ago with first-grade students,” he tells me. “We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on, and then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up.”

The American students “worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, ‘We haven’t had this,’ ” he says.

But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. “And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, ‘Oh, that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!’ and they looked at us like, ‘What kind of animals are we?’ ” Stigler recalls.

“Think about that [kind of behavior] spread over a lifetime,” he says. “That’s a big difference.”

How many times have I been proud of myself because of my innate abilities rather than how hard I work to improve the things that aren’t as good? How many times have I thrown in the towel when things got hard?

There is value in the struggle. There is honor in the accomplishment. And even though some things come easy to me, I need to learn to struggle with the things that don’t.

You can listen to the original story here.



9 responses to “The Value of Struggle

  1. This was really fascinating because clearly we’re doing something wrong in the US regarding education. Of course, this doesn’t address any pitfalls of the Japanese educational system.

    • The article addressed this a little bit. While Americans may be jealous of the Eastern value of sticking with something, Eastern folks are jealous of American creativity. They aren’t fond of the fact that they are producing kids with great math and science scores, but low scores in the arts. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Hey, Josh…. this is fascinating but sad. Thanks for the encouragement to continue to grow… especially in those areas where I haven’t focused before. Would you mind if I shared it on FB? Of course, I would give you credit.

  3. I’ve seen a related study cited in 2 books (Nurture Shock and What the Dog Saw). It is about praising kids for how smart they are vs. how hard they tried something. Apparently, telling kids they are smart makes them stop when they get to something they struggle with. They think “I don’t have the innate ability to pull this off. . ” so they quit. I’ve replaced the you’re so smart rhetoric in my house with “You obviously have worked really hard to get those grades” (or whatever they succeeded at). I think it means more because instead of something I’ve done for them (given them good smart genes and environment), it’s something they have done. I’m sharing the link too. Thanks.

    • Thanks Joy! Great input. It’s funny how intentional we need to be as parents to encourage our kids in the way they should grow. I’m glad that I heard about this while mine are still so young.

      • Josh, you are SO right to be thankful that God has blessed you with such wisdom and understanding so young! You have opportunities to bless and grow your children in ways that I just absolutely missed. I have spent years back-pedaling, diligently trying to undo and ‘unteach’ bad habits and sinful behaviors. Never take for granted the gift that God has given you to know these things when your children are babies!

    • Joy, I thank you for your input, as well. You’ve connected the dots for me! I was rather convicted about my own efforts (or lack there of) but it didn’t occur to me to consider how I speak to my children about their efforts. I will certainly try to remember to praise them for their efforts, rather than the results of their efforts, in the future! Blessings!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s