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What Does It Mean to “Challenge Growth”?





Actions That Challenge Growth

Search Institute has identified four actions that challenge growth:

  • Expect my best. Expect me to live up to my potential.
  • Stretch. Push me to go further.
  • Hold me accountable. Insist I take responsibility for my actions.
  • Reflect on failures. Help me learn from mistakes and setbacks.


Getting Started: Ideas for Parents

Here are some ways moms, dads, and other parenting adults can challenge their kids:

  1. Expect your children to do their best, even when doing something they don’t really like.
  2. Teach your children that making mistakes is a part of learning.
  3. Highlight future goals. Talk with your kids about the things they look forward to or dream about.
  4. Ask hard questions, provide alternate explanations, and encourage openness to different opinions. These actions help them expand their own thinking.
  5. Praise your kids when they work hard, whether they succeed or fail.

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Take a quick quiz to reflect on how you challenge growth in your family. Use the results to explore new ways to help each other work toward goals in balanced ways and learn from failures and setbacks.

Parents Do you already have a Family Quiz Code? Click here? Click here to take the quiz and get a Family Quiz Code to share with your family (optional).
Youth* Click here if your family has a Family Quiz Code. Ask a parent to set up a Family Quiz Code.

* The quiz is designed for youth ages 10 to 18.


What’s the quiz for? This quiz is for your own reflection and discussion as a family. It is not a formal assessment.

How does it work? The first adult who takes a quiz is assigned a random number, which we call your Family Quiz Code. They then share that code with everyone else in the family. Each person just enters this Family Quiz Code when they start a quiz, and all your results are automatically combined so you can talk about them together.

Why do you need a Family Quiz Code? This anonymous code lets you see the results from everyone in your family combined.

Who will see the results? No one else will ever know your responses, unless you share them. The Family Quiz Code cannot be used to find or identify you or your family.

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The Challenge of Challenging Growth

Challenging growth focuses on the ways we encourage, inspire, push, or otherwise influence each other to try new things, take risks, work on goals, or overcome obstacles and challenges. These discussion starters can help you think about how challenging growth works—or doesn’t work—in your family.

Discussion Starters with Your Kids

  1. What is something you used to do poorly but now do well? What did you do to improve? Why did you keep working to get better? Did anyone help you? What does the fact that you got better tell you about your ability to achieve other goals?
  2. How has someone inspired you to take on a new challenge? What was inspiring to you about it? What was hard about it?
  3. How does challenging other people to grow either strengthen or hurt your relationship? And how does having a strong relationship make it easier or harder to push people to learn and grow?
  4. What are ways family members have challenged you to learn and grow? How did you respond? What made it easier or harder to keep working toward completing the task or achieving the goal?
  5. In what ways have you challenged other people to do things that would help them learn and grow? How did they respond?
  6. What are some challenges we’ve faced together in our family? In what ways did we grow in the midst of those challenges?
  7. The writer Samuel Beckett once wrote this line in a poem: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” What do you think it means to “fail better?” Have you ever failed better?

Discussion Starters with Other Parenting Adults*

  1. Throughout our lives as parents, we’ve had to challenge our kids to take on new challenges and grow. What have been some of the most rewarding times you’ve had in challenging growth? What have been some of the hardest?
  2. Challenging our kids to grow can be tricky. On the one hand, pushing our kids to take on challenges helps them grow. On the other hand, we hope they will work on goals because they want to. How do we live with that tension?
  3. Who are the people who challenge you to learn and grow as a parent? What do they say or do that really helps you keep going, even when it’s tough?
  4. How often has your child had the experience of working hard at something and eventually succeeding? How can we ensure the young person has that experience in the future?
  5. What do you say and do when your child makes a mistake? Are there things you could do to encourage your child to see mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow?

* These parenting adults may include your spouse or partner, extended family members, friends who are parents, or a parent group or class.

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Practical Ways to Challenge Growth

Relationships are stronger when family members challenge each other to learn and grow. Through these activities, your family can explore the ways you push each other to press toward goals that matter for each person.

Expect My Best: Expect me to live up to my potential (three family activities)

High expectations lie at the heart of challenging growth in our family relationships. The vast majority of parents have many different expectations of their kids, including expectations about being responsible, doing well in school, treating others fairly, and many others.

And though we don’t think about it as often, kids have expectations of their parents, including being there for them, treating them well, providing for them, and many other things.

Sometimes we live up to those expectations; sometimes we don’t. Sometimes those expectations are reasonable; sometimes they aren’t. In some cases, those expectations are so low that they hold us back rather than push us forward. These activities bring your family together to explore your expectations of each other and yourselves.

1. The Ups and Downs of Expectations  40 min

Examine the balance of expectations in your family.

Finding the right balance in what we expect of each other is always a balancing act itself:

  • High expectations. Research is clear that high expectations are the most motivating.1,2 But if they’re too high they can backfire, particularly if they aren’t matched with a lot of support and encouragement.
  • Shared expectations. We do best when we have high expectations of ourselves and others have high expectations of us. Expectations by other people are also important sources of motivation. But if we don’t also have expectations of ourselves, we can stay reliant on other people to keep us on track.

This activity guides you in exploring family members’ experiences of the balance of high and shared expectations, providing some starting points for enhancing the ways you expect each other to learn and grow.

  1. Give each person a copy of the Expectations Map and something to write with. Read through the expectations at the top. Decide together if you want to add different ones or eliminate some of those listed.
  2. On their own, have each person check the areas of family life in your list that are important areas of family expectations.
  3. Plot each area on the chart as follows:
  • How high are these expectations? (If you think they’re too high, your plot will be in the top half of the page. If you think they’re too low, your plot will be on the bottom of the page. If you think they’re about right, your mark will be near the middle.)
  • Who sets these expectations? (If they’re set by you alone, your plot would be on the right side—“inside only.” If they’re mostly driven by other people, your plot would be on the left side—“outside only.”)
  1. Write the number of the expectation in the grid based on your answers to those two questions. For example, if you think expectations about health and exercise are too high and mostly internal (self-motivation), you’d write “XX” in the upper-right space in the grid.
  2. Compare responses from different family members. If you wish, create a single chart that shows where different family members would plot different expectations. (Use a different color of ink for each person.)
  3. Discuss the patterns you see and what they suggest about your family:
  • Do the patterns seem to fit your family overall? Why or why not?
  • Do people generally see expectations as too high or too low?
  • Are they mostly external or internal?
  • Where do you see a good balance?
  • How have you seen these patterns change? How might they change as kids grow up?
  • What might be some things you could do together to make expectations more balanced?

2. That’s Not What I Expected! 15 min

How do you deal with disappointment from unmet expectations?

If you search the Internet, you’ll quickly find a wide range of quotable and not-so-quotable sayings about expectations and disappointments.

Some suggest that expectations are all that matters. For example:

  • “High expectations are the key to everything.” (Sam Walton, business leader)
  • “High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.” (Charles Kettering, inventor)

Others point to expectations that only seemed to hurt. For example:

  • “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” (William Shakespeare, playwright)
  • “Expectations are resentments under construction.” (Anne Lamott, author)

And some observers suggest that having low or no expectations may be a good way to avoid disappointment. For example:

  • “If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed.” (Sylvia Plath, writer)
  • “I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep my expectations.” (Bill Watterson, cartoonist)

Use these and other quotes to stimulate a family conversation about how you think about unmet expectations or disappointments within your family.

  1. Read aloud the quotes about expectations shown above. If you want, do your own search for other quotes that are interesting, funny, or useful to you.
  2. Talk about the quotes together:
  • Which quotes made the most sense to you? Which ones seem off the mark?
  • What personal experiences did some of these quotes remind you about?
  • Think about experiences in your family that fit with different quotes. What does that say about how your family handles unmet expectations with each other?
  1. Expectations can be missed for a lot of different reasons. Maybe they were too high. Maybe the person wasn’t motivated. Maybe something else happened that changed what was doable. Maybe the person just made a mistake. Reflect together on some of the missed expectations in your family:
  • Why do you think the expectation was missed?
  • What were the consequences of it being missed?
  • What could be done to make it less likely that this expectation would be missed in the future? (Consider completing the “The Ups and Downs of Expectations” activity for more insights on how to set balanced expectations.)
  1. Brainstorm together some mottos—quotable quotes—you might use for how your family handles, or would like to handle, unmet expectations. Write them out and post them in places where people in your family will see them.

3. Stereotypes That Hold Us Back 20 min

What can we do when stereotypes lower expectations of ourselves and others?

Some of the most difficult expectations to deal with are low expectations that people have based on their prejudices about a particular group of people. This may be a prejudice or bias based on race or ethnicity, gender, religion, or other individual differences. Researchers call this stereotype threat.3

When we’re in situations where part of our identity is stigmatized or viewed negatively, it creates a stress reaction in us. As a result of that stress, we:

  • Focus on protecting ourselves from the threat, which results in not doing as well as we otherwise would;
  • Stop trying to do whatever we’re expected not to do well; and
  • Avoid groups and situations where we feel threatened or out of place.4

Negative stereotypes not only undermine expectations others have for us, but they also erode our expectations of ourselves. They can hurt our opportunities for growth and learning.

The following activity encourages your family to examine areas where family members may experience or see this kind of stigma—either for themselves or others—and then to identify some strategies to cope with it.

  1. Review the introductory material about stereotype threats (above) together as family, or watch the above video, which introduces the topic.
  2. Brainstorm times when a family member may have experienced stereotype threat based on gender, age, religion, family income, or other personal characteristics. After you’ve thought of several ideas, pick one to focus on for this activity.
  3. Have one family member pretend to be a TV reporter who’s investigating the incident you picked. Other family members can play the role of “eyewitnesses” to the event. Encourage family members to think of this activity as acting (or role playing), so they can pretend to be someone they’re not in real life.
  4. Interview the person who experienced stereotype threat, asking questions like:
  • What were you doing when you experienced this stereotype threat?
  • When did you first start to feel stress or discomfort? What do you think triggered that? Did you see something? Did someone say or do something?
  • Did you feel like you were in the wrong place or that people were watching you?
  • How did these feelings affect your ability to concentrate?
  • How did you end up doing? If you did well, how did you overcome the “performance anxiety” that might have been triggered by the stereotype? If you didn’t do well, what role do you think stereotypes may have played in hurting your ability to do well?
  1. If other people are pretending to be eyewitnesses, interview them, too. What did they see or hear? Did they notice the threat, too?
  2. After you’ve interviewed everyone, talk about the interviews:
  • What was hard about it?
  • What were some of the most important things said during the interview?
  • How much is this incident similar to other things you’ve experienced?
  1. Review the tip sheet, When Stereotypes Lower Expectations. Discuss which suggestions might have helped reduce the impact of this situation.
  2. Within your own family, are there stereotypes that hold you back by lowering your expectations of yourself or others in your family? How might you counter these stereotypes?
  3. Imagine the news story about the incident you acted out earlier. As a result of the story, imagine changes that can be made to make the situation better. The “reporter” comes back to do a follow-up report. What would they see that would show that the stereotype threat has been reduced or eliminated?
  4. Review the When Stereotypes Lower Expectations tip sheet again. Agree as a family about one thing you’ll do together to reduce the negative impact of stereotype threat on your family or in other situations.
Stretch: Push me to go further (two family activities)

Rubber bands only do their job of holding things together when they’re stretched—but not so far that they break. That’s similar to what it means to challenge growth through stretching. By stretching each other beyond what’s easy and comfortable, we stimulate each other to learn and grow. If we try to stretch too far, we probably won’t break like a rubber band―but we will likely get frustrated, and we won’t be motivated. These activities encourage your family to explore three keys to stretching each other in ways that build on each other’s thoughts and abilities, while also supporting each other to learn and grow.

1. Stretching in the Same Direction 45 min

Use a three-legged challenge to experience working together to stretch and grow.

In the children’s fantasy stories about Dr. Doolittle from the 1920s, one of the imaginary creatures was the pushmi-pullyu (pronounced “push-me—pull-you”). A cross between a gazelle and a unicorn, it had a head on each end of its body. Each head tried to lead the bumbling beast in the opposite direction. Sometimes we can feel like a pushmi-pullyu when we’re trying to figure out what to do. We want to push in one direction, but others pull us in another, making it hard to get momentum! A key to effectively stretching ourselves and each other is to get our internal motivation (the “pushmi”) and the other influences (the “pullyu”) heading in the same direction. To get a feel for how this works, take on a three-legged challenge.

  1. Like you would do in a three-legged race, find a towel, scarf, or fabric strip you can use to tie pairs of family members’ legs together. (You’ll need one piece of fabric for each pair of people. If you have an odd number, have one person do it twice with a different partner so everyone can participate.) Find an open space where people will be safe if they stumble or fall down.
  2. Have the partners stand next to each other and put their arm around the other person’s waist, with their inside legs touching. Tie the partners’ inside legs together so the partners have three legs.
  3. Have the partners try a series of simple challenges together, such as these:
  • Walk forward slowly five steps.
  • Take five steps to the right.
  • Take five steps to the left.
  • Walk backward for five steps.
  • Turn around to head the opposite direction.
  • Try these moves and others until you start to get the hang of it.
  1. Next, have one person in the pair decide what they’ll do together, and the other has to follow, keeping in mind that people should only do things that are safe. Then switch, letting the other person say what they’ll try to do.
  2. Once everyone has had a turn, talk about the experience:
  • What was your first thought when you started doing this? How did your thinking change as you got started?
  • What was hardest about the challenge? What was easy?
  • How did it feel once you started to get the hang of it?
  • If you were to try it again, what do you think you would do differently?
  1. Think about an area where you’ve tried to help someone in the family tackle a challenge or work toward a goal. It could be something a kid is facing in school or sports. Or it could be changing something at home, such as eating healthier food.
  • How did what happened in the three-legged experience shed light on this challenge?
  • Are there times when you’re not pulling in the same direction—or one person is pulling harder than the other? What happens then?
  • How do you shift to where you’re all heading in the same direction?
  • What are some things you did in the three-legged challenge that might be interesting to try when you’re challenging someone in the family to grow?
  1. Have people each identify one area of life where they’re having a pushmi-pullyu experience—where what they want seems to be heading in a different direction than where others are pulling them. Brainstorm together how you can get more into sync, using some of what you discovered through the three-legged challenge.

2. Stretching Each Other in the “Growth Zone” 20 min

Find a good mix of stretching and guiding to fuel growth and learning.

We’re most likely to help each other learn and grow if we find the right balance. If what we’re doing is too comfortable or easy, we can quickly get bored. If it’s too hard (even with help from others), we become frustrated and quit. So we don’t grow that way, either. The ideal balance for growth and learning lies between the “comfort zone” and the “frustration zone,” which we’ll call the “growth zone.” It’s in a zone where we can be successful, but only with support and guidance.5 Over time, we learn how to do it on our own. In this activity, family members reflect on something they’re proud to be able to do—and what that tells them about their growth zone.

  1. Give each person a copy of the download Your Experience in the Growth Zone. Ask people to complete it on their own.
  2. When everyone is done, have each person talk about their skill or talent and the people who have helped them develop it. Give each person time to tell their own story.
  3. When everyone is done, ask these questions for everyone to talk about:
  • How do our experiences illustrate the idea of the growth zone? (This is that zone where we’re stretched to grow but supported by others.)
  • When have we not experienced the right kind of support and challenge? For example, when have we been irritated with others because they took over and completed the task without giving us a chance to learn?
  • What are the ways you most appreciate being supported and guided in the growth zone? (Look at your reflection sheet for ideas.)
  1. Conclude by talking about current areas where you’d like to grow and how others in the family can keep you in that growth zone between comfort and frustration.
Hold Me Accountable: Insist I take responsibility for my actions (two family activities)

Sometimes we think of accountability in negative terms. It’s no fun when someone tells us we’re off track. But we all need others to notice—and tell us—when we fail to live up to our responsibilities and when we’re off track from achieving our goals. Part of having a strong relationship with each other is that we trust each other to express both love and care as well as to challenge us when we’re off track. These activities help families focus on holding each other accountable for their own actions as they seek to learn, grow, and work toward their goals.

1. Being Each Other’s GPS (Goal Pursuit Support) 30 min

Decide what you’ll do to (gently) remind each other when you get off track.

Think about the Global Positioning System (GPS) map program you probably use on your smartphone. You tell it where you want to go, and it helps you find the best route. Then you head in that direction. But perhaps you decide to stop somewhere along the way or just get off track. Your GPS will often say, “Please return to your route,” or it may “reroute” you a different way. In a small way, our GPS holds us accountable to where we say we want to go. It doesn’t drive us there (at least not yet!), but it gently tells us when we’re off track. This activity encourages your family to talk about how you can be a GPS—or “Goal Pursuit Support”— for each other.

  1. Decide together as a family someplace you want to walk, bike, jog, or drive together that will take about five to ten minutes (longer if you have it). Enter the address to show you a route (or many possible routes).

OPTION: If you want to make it a family outing, pick a favorite place for a picnic, snack, family meal out, or other activity you can enjoy together.

  1. Head out together, following the GPS (even if you don’t really need to). But when you get to an intersection, turn the opposite direction. Watch what it tells you to do. Try this a few more times. (If you know your way around, you may want to see what else you can do to confuse the GPS.)
  2. Eventually get to your destination after taking several detours. Sit together and talk about the experience:
  • Remember the various twists and turns you took. How did that affect how quickly you reached your destination?
  • How did the GPS respond as you went in different directions? How did you react to the “correction” the first time? Later times?
  • Imagine that the voice in the GPS was a person who was guiding you in real life. How do you think they might have felt as you went on all your detours?
  1. Next, think of ways you are like a GPS for each other. (If you like, you can also think of other people who help you work toward your goals, such as teachers or coaches.) Talk together about these questions:
  • In what ways are we like the GPS for each other? How are we different from the computerized voice in our phones?
  • How do you react when someone notices that you’ve gotten “off the route”? What reactions are most helpful? What reactions are not as helpful?
  • Talk about this idea: Most GPS devices let you change the voice or accent of the “person” giving verbal directions on your map. Similarly, different people respond to different ways of showing accountability. Here are two of them:
    • Firm and stern: A no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is demand to “get with the program.”
    • Gentle and encouraging: An empathetic, softer style that still pushes you to do what you committed to doing.
  • Which approach to accountability works best for you? (You may think of others besides these two.) Which doesn’t work well? (Remember, “working well” isn’t which is most comfortable, but what most helps you stay motivated to reach your goal.)
  1. Decide how you will “program” yourselves to be a GPS (Goal Pursuit Support) for each other. Include “features” like:
  • What “voice” you will use. (Firm and stern? Gentle and encouraging?)
  • How quickly you’ll say something when they get off track.
  • How you’ll work together when it becomes necessary to “reroute” in order to reach your goal.

2. Choose Your “Hard Thing” 10 min

Set expectations for how your family deals with difficult commitments.

What do you do when you encounter a challenge—or just something that’s really hard to do? Do you stop or give up? Do you keep going, no matter what? This activity helps you think through a strategy for how you can hold each other accountable in your family.

  1. Watch the first half of the above video in which researcher Angela Duckworth describes a strategy her family adopted to help their two middle school–aged daughters learn to persist through distraction and difficulty. (The second half isn’t focused on family issues.)
  2. Talk together about the two essential elements of their strategy:
  • Everyone in the family―including the adults―must select a “hard thing” that takes serious effort and isn’t fun all the time. For example, a parent’s hard thing could be their job, while a child’s hard thing might be a challenging subject in school or an extracurricular activity, such as playing an instrument. Duckworth stresses that the child must be able to pick their hard thing in order to feel ownership of the activity.
  • Family members are allowed to quit doing the hard thing they’ve chosen, but not on a bad day or in the middle of a process, such as in the middle of a school year. This requirement helps children learn to persist through temporary problems and setbacks and also helps them learn that they should see an effort through to a reasonable conclusion.
  1. Talk about how these guidelines would work in your family. How might you adopt or adapt them to work for you? How might it have affected choices you made in the past?
  2. Have family members each pick something to be their hard thing that they’ll stick with in the weeks or months ahead.
  3. Decide how you’ll regularly check in as a family to see how each person’s hard thing is going and, when necessary, provide encouragement and assistance.
Reflect on Failures: Help me learn from mistakes and setbacks (two family activities)

One of the best ways to learn to put effort into achieving goals is to learn from mistakes, failures, and setbacks. How we approach these challenges affects whether we keep going and improve—or just give up. These activities focus on developing these attitudes.

1. Learning from Mistakes 10 min

Successful people can be role models for learning from mistakes.

Reconsidering the meaning of failure is an important aspect of developing a growth mindset. This activity is to put a positive face on failure by encountering people who learned from mistakes and failures that, though initially painful, ultimately led to valuable improvements.  

  1. Watch the above three-minute video on Famous Failures together as a family.
  2. Talk together about the video:
  • Which people in the video surprised you? Why?
  • Why do you think they persevered through their failures?
  • How might their failures have helped them accomplish what they did in life?
  1. Tell each other about a time when you made a mistake or failed at something. Share with each other:
  • How you felt during the experience.
  • What the experience made you think about your abilities.
  • What others said or did after your mistake or failure.
  • The lesson(s) you learned from this mistake or failure.
  • Any other good things that happened because of this mistake or failure.
  1. End by sharing with your child how you try to approach mistakes and failures in your life today.

2. Learning from Our Failures 25 min

How we respond to mistakes and failures is key to learning and growing.

The slogan “failure is not an option” might be important for NASA and Apollo 13, but it’s problematic for everyday life. Setting extremely high expectations and then being overly judgmental when you don’t live up to them is unhealthy.6,7 The question is not whether we fail sometimes. The real question is: How do we respond to failure by ourselves and by others? This activity invites your family to think about that question together.

  1. Give each family member a copy of the How Do You Think About Failures? checklist to complete on their own.
  2. Talk together about your responses:
  • Did you mostly check statements in one column or the other?
  • Where did you make the same and different choices from each other?
  • Do the differences between family members reflect how you see each other?
  1. The two columns represent two mindsets about failures:
  • The LEFT column represents “fixed mindsets.” People with fixed mindsets tend to:
    • See failures or mistakes as signs that they aren’t good enough.
    • Be perfectionists, or set really low expectations for themselves.
    • Be self-critical and overly concerned about what others think.
  • The RIGHT column represents “growth mindsets.” People with growth mindsets tend to:
    • See failures or mistakes as opportunities to grow and learn.
    • Have high standards, but keep a positive outlook when they don’t reach them.
    • Be more self-motivated and have better decision-making abilities.8,9
  1. Reflect on your own choices on the checklist. Discuss:
  • Do your choices reflect the mindset that you really have? Why or why not?
  • What do we do in our family that reinforces one mindset or the other?
  1. These attitudes are not just parts of ourselves or our families. We experience them in many places we spend time and in our society. Discuss:
  • Which of these two mindsets is emphasized in the places you spend time, such as your school or workplace? How does that affect your own mindset?
  • How are these mindsets reflected in society at large, including the media?
  • How might these broader expectations affect your own attitudes and actions?
  1. What are ways we can do more in our family to focus on using our mistakes and failures to grow and learn? How can we better support each other in dealing with disappointments?

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What Does It Mean to Challenge Growth?

As humans, “challenging ourselves and each other is a part of human nature.”1 We take risks and compete. We like to be physically and mentally stimulated. Challenging growth focuses on the ways people seek to bring out the best in each other. We challenge growth in four ways:

  • Expect each other’s best. Expect each other to live up to their potential.
  • Stretch. Push each other to go further.
  • Hold each other accountable. Insist that everyone takes responsibility for their actions.
  • Reflect on failures. Help each other learn from mistakes and setbacks.

Challenging growth is most effective when the relationship is built on a foundation of care. It also works best when people are being challenged to get better based on their own goals—not just what someone else wants them to do.

Why does challenging growth matter?

Without some challenge in their lives, kids get bored. The same is true of adults. When kids have challenging tasks that fit their abilities, they tend to rise to the challenge. They find the activities are more enjoyable and interesting than when the tasks are not challenging.1 Challenging young people to grow—through relationship with their parents—can influence many parts of young people’s lives. Here’s a sample:

  • Overall adjustment and resilience2
  • Ability to stay focused on achieving their long-term goals3
  • Doing well in school4,5,6,7
  • Civic participation8
  • Athletic and sports achievement9
  • Nutrition and health habits10
  • Reduced alcohol or tobacco use11
How do families challenge growth?

Parenting adults play an important role in challenging growth, and most parents see themselves doing well in pushing their kids to keep getting better. Almost three out of four parents surveyed report strengths in challenging growth with their kids.

For more research on challenging growth in family relationships, check out Search Institute’s research on families.

How does challenging growth work best?

Challenging kids’ growth is important, but it can be tricky. Challenging growth calls for a balance of several things. Getting this balance right—and adjusting when needed—is key.

Keep Challenge, Care, and Support Working Together

Challenging growth works best when a parent’s approach is caring and supportive. It helps to do a gradual shifting of power and responsibility to the child. This helps the child become more self-directed and motivated.1,12

  • If a parent’s challenges are overly demanding, harsh, or rigid, they will backfire. This style of challenge hurts kids and pushes them away. It can lead to high stress and negative perfectionism.13
  • If a parent’s challenges are too easy with no accountability, they also fail. This style of challenge hurts kids’ motivation and can lead to apathy. Kids may feel that parents don’t care enough to expect much of them.

Many researchers have described this dynamic as “authoritative parenting,” one of four basic parenting styles.13,14 Authoritative parenting leads to the best outcomes for kids from many different backgrounds. It combines a high level of challenge with a high level of care and support.

Match Challenge with Kids’ Interests and Abilities

We can’t “make” our kids grow by challenging them. To grow, they must take responsibility and action themselves.1 We can set rules and limits, inspire and stretch them, and set the expectation for them. But it’s their job to focus and take steps to achieve their goals.3 We can’t learn and grow for them.

But when we notice and challenge kids to grow around their own interests and abilities, we are responding to their own initiative and motivation. That responsiveness builds their self-confidence and motivation to keep challenging themselves. It also encourages us to keep challenging them to grow in these areas.7

Avoid Challenging in Harsh Ways

Some styles of challenge are unhealthy. In fact, some practices can cause a child to misbehave, feel anxious or depressed, or have other problems. These unhealthy approaches include:

  • Psychological control, which dismisses children’s experiences, emotions, and sense of themselves15
  • Inconsistent or harsh discipline2,12,16

Learn from Failure and Setbacks

Sometimes kids will fail. How parenting adults respond to that failure makes a huge difference:

  • If parents ridicule, belittle, or shame kids for failure, they undermine their self-confidence and motivation. Kids become less likely to try again or take on new challenges.
  • If parents see failure as part of learning, kids are often motivated to try again. It’s important to provide a lot of care and emotional support to work through their disappointments. In the process, they develop more self-confidence and better decision-making skills.17

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Read about Challenge Growth

We all need nudges that push us to work hard on achieving our goals. We challenge our kids to grow by pushing them beyond what’s comfortable, raising questions, and testing their abilities in ways that are demanding, stimulating, and motivating. We also help them keep them heading in a positive direction by setting appropriate limits.

Amazing Grace (Family Strength: Inspire)

Written by Mary Hoffman,  Illustrated by Caroline Binch

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The Bee Tree (Family Strength: Stretch)

Written by Stephen Buchmann and Diana Cohn, Illustrated by Paul Mirocha

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Download the discussion guide in English and Spanish.

Too Many Tamales (Family Strength: Limit)

Written by Gary Soto, Illustrated by Ed Martinez

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Download the discussion guide in English and Spanish.

Research Sources

Try It

1. Scales, P. C., & Leffert, N. (2004). Developmental assets: A synthesis of the scientific research on adolescent development. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute.
2. Zhang, Y., Haddad, E., Torres, B., & Chen, C. (2011). The reciprocal relationships among parents’ expectations, adolescents’ expectations, and adolescents’ achievement: A two-wave longitudinal analysis of the NELS data. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(4), 479–89. doi:10.1007/s10964-010-9568-8
3. Steele, C. M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. New York, NY: Norton.
4. Thoman, D. B., Smith, J. L., Brown, E. R., Chase, J., Lee, J. Y. K. (2013). Beyond performance: A motivational experiences model of stereotype threat. Educational Psychology Review, 25(2), 211–243. doi:10.1007/s10648-013-9219-1
5. Based on the concept of “Zone of Proximal Development,” which was developed by a Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. See: Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
6. DiPrima, A. J., Ashby, J. S., Gnilka, P. B., & Noble, C. L. (2011). Family relationships and perfectionism in middle-school students. Psychology in the Schools, 48(8), 815‒827. doi:10.1002/pits.20594
7. Stoeber, J., & Janssen, D. P. (2011). Perfectionism and coping with daily failures: Positive reframing helps achieve satisfaction at the end of the day. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 24(5), 477–97. doi:10.1080/10615806.2011.562977
8. Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.
9. Dweck, C., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. (2011). Academic tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning (working paper). Seattle, WA: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Learn About It

  1. Dailey, R. M. (2008). Parental challenge: Developing and validating a measure of how parents challenge their adolescents. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25(4), 643–669. doi:10.1177/0265407508093784
  2. Alegre, A. (2011). Parenting styles and children’s emotional intelligence: What do we know? The Family Journal, 19(1), 56–62. doi:10.1177/1066480710387486
  3. Rathunde, K. (2001). Family context and the development of undivided interest: A longitudinal study of family support and challenge and adolescents’ quality of experience. Applied Developmental Science, 5(3), 158–171. doi:10.1207/S1532480XADS0503_4
  4. Bowen, G. L., Hopson, L. M., Rose, R. A., Glennie, E. J., & Carolina, N. (2012). Students’ perceived parental school behavior expectations and their academic performance : A longitudinal analysis. Family Relations, 61(April), 175–191. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2011.00695.x
  5. Kirk, C. M., Lewis-Moss, R. K., Nilsen, C., & Colvin, D. Q. (2011). The role of parent expectations on adolescent educational aspirations. Educational Studies, 37(1), 89–99. doi:10.1080/03055691003728965
  6. Yamamoto, Y., & Holloway, S. D. (2010). Parental expectations and children’s academic performance in sociocultural context. Educational Psychology Review, 22(3), 189–214. doi:10.1007/s10648-010-9121-z
  7. Zhang, Y., Haddad, E., Torres, B., & Chen, C. (2011). The reciprocal relationships among parents’ expectations, adolescents’ expectations, and adolescents’ achievement: A two-wave longitudinal analysis of the NELS data. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(4), 479–89. doi:10.1007/s10964-010-9568-8
  8. Mesurado, B., Richaud, M. C., Mestre, M. V., Samper-Garcia, P., Tur-Porcar, A., Morales Mesa, S. A., & Viveros, E. F. (2014). Parental expectations and prosocial behavior of adolescents from low-income backgrounds: A cross-cultural comparison between three countries—Argentina, Colombia, and Spain. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 45(9), 1471–1488. doi:10.1177/0022022114542284
  9. Bremer, K. L. (2012). Parental involvement, pressure, and support in youth sport: A narrative literature review. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 4(3), 235–248. doi:10.1111/j.1756-2589.2012.00129.x
  10. Gable, S., & Lutz, S. (2012). Household, parent, and child contributions to childhood obesity. Family Relations, 49(3), 293–300. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2000.00293.x
  11. Nash, S. G., McQueen, A., & Bray, J. H. (2005). Pathways to adolescent alcohol use: Family environment, peer influence, and parental expectations. The Journal of Adolescent Health, 37(1), 19–28. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2004.06.004
  12. Baumrind, D. (1996). The discipline controversy revisited. Family Relations, 45(4), 405–414.
  13. Stoeber, J., & Rambow, A. (2007). Perfectionism in adolescent school students: Relations with motivation, achievement, and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 42, 1379–1389.
  14. Steinberg, L. (2001). We know some things: Parent-adolescent relationships in retrospect and prospect. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 11, 1–19.
  15. Barber, B. K. (1996). Parental psychological control: Revisiting a neglected construct. Child Development, 67(6), 3296-3319. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1996.tb01915.x
  16. Morris, A. S., Silk, J. J. S., Steinberg, L., Myers, S. S., & Robinson, L. R. (2007). The role of the family context in the development of emotion regulation. Social Development, 16(2), 361–388. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2007.00389.x
  17. Dweck, C. S. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.
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