Anyone who doubts that children are born with a healthy amount of ambition need spend only a few minutes with a baby eagerly learning to walk or a headstrong toddler starting to talk. No matter how many times the little ones stumble in their initial efforts, most keep on trying, determined to master their amazing new skill. It is only several years later, around the start of middle or junior high school, many psychologists and teachers agree, that a good number of kids seem to lose their natural drive to succeed and end up joining the ranks of underachievers. For the parents of such kids, whose own ambition is often inextricably tied to their children's success, it can be a bewildering, painful experience. So it's no wonder some parents find themselves hoping that, just maybe, ambition can be taught like any other subject at school.
It's not quite that simple. "Kids can be given the opportunities [to become passionate about a subject or activity], but they can't be forced," says Jacquelynne Eccles, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, who led a landmark, 25-year study examining what motivated first- and seventh-graders in three school districts. Even so, a growing number of educators and psychologists do believe it is possible to unearth ambition in students who don't seem to have much. They say that by instilling confidence, encouraging some risk taking, being accepting of failure and expanding the areas in which children may be successful, both parents and teachers can reignite that innate desire to achieve.
Figuring out why the fire went out is the first step. Assuming that a kid doesn't suffer from an emotional or learning disability, or isn't involved in some family crisis at home, many educators attribute a sudden lack of motivation to a fear of failure or peer pressure that conveys the message that doing well academically somehow isn't cool. "Kids get so caught up in the moment-to-moment issue of will they look smart or dumb, and it blocks them from thinking about the long term," says Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford. "[You have to teach them that] they are in charge of their intellectual growth." Over the past couple of years, Dweck has helped run an experimental workshop with New York City public school seventh-graders to do just that. Dubbed Brainology, the unorthodox approach uses basic neuroscience to teach kids how the brain works and how it can continue to develop throughout life. "The message is that everything is within the kids' control, that their intelligence is malleable," says Lisa Blackwell, a research scientist at Columbia University who has worked with Dweck to develop and run the program, which has helped increase the students' interest in school and turned around their declining math grades. More than any teacher or workshop, Blackwell says, "parents can play a critical role in conveying this message to their children by praising their effort, strategy and progress rather than emphasizing their 'smartness' or praising high performance alone. Most of all, parents should let their kids know that mistakes are a part of learning."