Pediatric Associates of the NW Blogs

Tips For Teaching Your Child New Skills

Peter Reed, MD, MPH, FAAP
April 18, 2019 02:00PM

Do you remember learning to ride a bike, or learning how to ski? If you do, you probably recall a few smashes and crashes, and some frustration and discouragement. Learning a complex skill, like riding a bike, is challenging. But the reward for this hard work is the feeling of triumph and the exhilaration of the wind on your face.

As adults, we have been through enough steep learning curves and complex challenges to know that the payoff is usually worth the effort. Young kids, though, do not have that life experience. They may not be able to imagine the fun of riding a bike when they are picking themselves up off the pavement and licking their wounds, again.

This winter, I have been thinking about what it is like for a child to learn a new physical skill, as we have been teaching my 5-year-old daughter to cross-country ski. The first day we went maybe a quarter mile and she spent more time on the ground and whining than on her skis. By the end of the season, she skied two miles and was beaming most of the time, even when she fell down. While she was learning to ski, we learned a little about how to motivate her to keep trying. Here are some tips to help your son or daughter (or even yourself!) learn to do something new.


1. Be enthusiastic

Share your excitement about the activity. Tell her how good you felt when you learned how to do it. Be careful not to oversell: your favorite activity might not be hers and you don’t want to her to feel like she is not measuring up.


2. Set yourself up for success

Make sure the basic needs are met. Breakfast? Check. Appropriate and warm-enough clothes? Check. Snacks? Check. Not nap time? Check. More snacks? Check.


3. Praise the effort more than the accomplishment

“I really like how you got back up and tried it again!” “When you fell that time you were leaning forward like we talked about! Try it again!”


4. Set small, attainable goals

Accomplishments, even small ones, make us feel good and give us the energy to keep trying. “Let’s see if we can get to that tree right up there.” She will know when she gets to the tree, so this is a great time to praise the effort again. “I could see you concentrating to keep your nose over your toes that time!”


5. “Discover” a treat

When we go skiing, somehow my daughter always seems to find fruit gummies or other small treats left on the trail by the woodland gnomes. These ‘magic energy beans’ keep her fueled up and motivated.


6. Quit while you’re ahead

Don’t let her suffer in frustration for too long. Pack it up while she’s still having some fun so that she will want to come back and do it again.


7. Have a bail-out plan

Think about what you will do if she has a complete meltdown or gets injured. For skiing and biking, venture out in small loops at first, going a little farther each time. When we are out biking, we often bring the kid trailer so that tired kids can get a ride when they need it.


8. Plan for next time

Make a plan to come back to the activity soon. Frequent outings will help her to build on her skills and sustain her enthusiasm.


9. Celebrate together

Do something fun and effortless together, like drinking hot tea or cocoa, to celebrate their hard work. (Remember to stick to the script on praising effort over achievement.)


10. Hire help

Sometimes you need a pro. This is obvious when you want your child to learn a skill that you do not possess. But it may be a good plan anyway. Kids are often more willing to put in effort for and listen to someone who is not their parent. I always recommend lessons for swimming, because this life-saving skill deserves expert instruction. Check out your local parks and recreation department for affordable classes.