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Kids and the destructive power of ‘learned indifference’

Are you unintentionally teaching your child to become a quitter?

If I were to ask you to describe your child’s level of motivation, what would you say?

Would you say your child is strong-willed, independent, and so full of conviction that nothing stands between them and the goals they’re trying to achieve? Does your child treat failure as a learning experience and feel even more motivated to try harder when they fail?

If you cannot answer an enthusiastic “YES” to these questions, I think you have some serious laziness issues that need to be addressed immediately within your children, and I’d like to teach you a powerful principal for developing more intrinsic motivation inside your child.

The Destructive Power of “Learned Indifference”
In order to best understand how to create more hope in your child’s life, you need to know about a scientific principle called “Learned Indifference.”

Learned indifference is what happens to a living creature when they have tried their very hardest to accomplish something time and time again and have never been able to succeeded. When they eventually come to the realization that no matter how hard they try they will NOT be able to accomplish the goals they set out to achieve, they give up and stop trying; this is Learned Indifference.

Probably the best real life example that illustrates the incredible power of learned indifference is how professional elephant trainers train an adult elephant to stay tied to a small peg in the ground, even though the adult elephant posses enough strength to yank the stick out of the ground at any time he wishes.

To accomplish this with an elephant is very easy. All you have to do is tie a baby elephant to a stake in the ground when it is very young and unable to break free.

At first this baby elephant will try over and over to break free, but because it doesn’t possess the strength, eventually it comes to the conclusion that it is not possible to break free of the stake and stops trying altogether.

The baby elephant becomes so convinced that it is impossible to break free when tied to a stake in the ground that even when it grows up it still holds true to those beliefs, even though they are not possible.

So how does this relate to your child not becoming a quitter?

Are you allowing your child to learn that no matter how hard he tries at something in life it is not possible to control your outcome?

Here are three ways most parents are unintentionally teaching their children that their fate is not in their own hands:

1. Whining about constant lack of money – when you whine about a constant lack of money and blame it on outside circumstances, you form a brain pattern in your child where they see you work very hard to try to make money but never get it. When this happens to children, they often learn that how much money they make is outside of their control. If you are no good at making money as a parent I would argue that unless you want to pass on the belief that making money is impossible to your children you must help them become friends with people who find making money easy.

2. Failing at sports – When a child goes to practice every day and doesn’t get better, or at least good enough to make the team they learn that God must not have made them athletic. That no matter how hard they try they will never be good at sports. But I can tell you from experience that if that type of child is given professional coaching (not just from his youth sports coach) a good coach will show them ways to improve. Even if your child never becomes the best, a good coach can teach a child that by focusing on details they can always improve themselves; and they can take that skill of constant self-improvement with them into every possible area of life.

3. Always coming to the rescue – When parents swoop into rescue their kids right before they fall off their bike, a teacher punishes them at school, or a coach chews them out in sports, children learn that when things get REALLY tough that other people will swoop in and solve their problems for them. This means that instead of biting down and working harder to overcome adversity as adults, they’ll turn to government, union bosses or their parent’s pocket books to bail them out of trouble when they’ve made a bad decision; instead of “manning up” and just getting the job done.

The amount of control a parent wields over childhood development is incredibly powerful, and something that not enough parents spend time thinking on. If we want our children to grow up to be go-getters and do great things with their lives we need to do more than just “Love” our children, we need to strategically equip them with the skills they’ll need as productive adults.

[author][author_info]About the Author

Mac Strider owns and operates, which is a site focused on helping children discover their innate strengths and turn them into world class talents. [/author_info] [/author]

Photo: Corbis

This post was written by a guest writer for Prime Parents Club. We are not currently taking new guest writers.


  1. Jacqueline

    October 21, 2010 at 10:17 am

    Thank you for this article, Mac. It certainly made me realize some things I’ve done with the older kids and will make me re-evaluate it for the younger one.

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