When you quit in frustration, little eyes are watching and learning. Victor Maschek/Shutterstock.com
You’re at home trying to make fresh tomato sauce, but can’t seem to get the tomatoes out of their plastic container from the grocery store. The bottom latch is not opening, so you pull harder. Although you’ve never seen this type of tomato container before, you have opened many similar ones in the past. After a minute of trying, you stop to consider the situation – should you keep pushing and pulling? Should you ask a friend for help? Should you give up on fresh tomatoes and just open a can?
We make decisions like this all the time. How much effort should we expend on something? We have only so much time and energy in the day. Five minutes fumbling with the container is five minutes taken away from reading a book, talking to your family or sleeping. In any given situation, you must decide how hard to try.
Developmental cognitive scientists like me are interested in how we make decisions about effort. In particular, how do young children, who are constantly encountering new situations, decide how hard to try?
The importance of effort extends beyond our daily decisions about time allocation. Recent studies show that self-control and persistence increase academic outcomes independent of IQ. Even our personal beliefs about effort can affect academic outcomes. Children who think effort leads to achievement outperform those who believe ability is a fixed trait.