Lemonade Stands & Mastery Experiences

3 Tips to Encourage Your Kids to Dive Deep

There are few “easy answers” in developing kids’ confidence. But there are a few things that I can tell you with certainty will help every kid build the most confident version of themselves:

  • A strong, loving relationship with their parents

  • Feeling like they belong with a group of peers

  • The opportunity to dive deep, work hard, and create or achieve something in an area of interest that is personally meaningful to them.

When I look at teenagers and young adults who are confident, accomplished, and thriving, a lot of them have a common thread: an early habit of embarking on mastery experiences when they were young: attempting to write a novel, building increasingly elaborate Lego creations, choosing to practice their skills in their chosen sport over and over and over, starting businesses, and more.

Dr. Albert Bandura—the global expert on self-belief—described mastery experiences this way: “There is no better way to start believing in one's ability to succeed than to set a goal, persist through challenges on the road to goal-achievement, and enjoy the satisfying results. 

Dr. Ellen Galinsky talks about mastery experiences different way in her brilliant child development book, Mind in the Making. She uses the example of a lemonade stand her daughter was passionate about running as a child, and what she learned from it.  “Every child needs lemonade stands throughout childhood. Caring strongly about interests beyond oneself engenders true focus.”

And I’ve seen it happen up close - before leading the program at Legends, I led the program at an organization that helped middle and high school students create their own service projects. I saw the impact it can have on a kid’s confidence when they identify something that’s personally meaningful to them and work on it over time. And I saw that there are ways parents and other adults can help—and ways they can hurt.

So here are three tips for helping your kid embark on a mastery experience:

Let it emerge naturally, and encourage it when it does.

I’m a big fan of Ned Johnson & Bill Stixrud’s book The Self-Driven Child, and one of its main takeaways is this: The key to motivation and persistence in kids (or anyone!) is a sense of autonomy and control. In other words - a mastery experience isn’t something you can talk your kid into. It has to be something they see - and want - for themselves.

But you can help. Expose your child to stories about their role models so they can see how experts develop their skills and feel motivated to develop themselves. (This is a big part of why we tell stories the way we do at Legends.) When your child expresses an interest in starting a project or taking a deeper dive into something they love, encourage them and express belief that they can do it.

Provide support, not solutions.

I’ve watched (and coached) a lot of adults try to help kids along the path of executing a mastery experience. Here’s what works: Letting them know that you’re there to help if they need it, and then getting out of the way, providing support when asked. Asking provocative questions - “What would happen if…?” “Have you considered…?” rather than giving solutions. Helping them find mentors or coaches in their community. Here’s what doesn’t work: providing a lot of advice, even if it’s positive and well-meaning, or trying to micromanage. Plenty of well-meaning parents see that kids’ first attempts at something tough might lead to failure and try to “pre-rescue” them. But that’s not helpful - and mostly the kid just gives up trying.

Get curious, not evaluative.

When your kid hands you a story they’ve written, resist the urge to correct the typos you see on the first page (or praise it for being typo-free) and make a show of reading it all the way through, asking about details and flourishes you notice like how they came up with a particularly unique character name. Same with soccer games or dance performances: the best way to encourage your kid is to be present and interested in what they’re doing. Be a fan, rather than a coach. (There’s a role for coaches in helping develop mastery, but now’s not the time for you to play that role.)

Join the conversation

or to participate.