'I think I can, I think I can': The power of self-efficacy

Belief in one's ability to succeed is the foundational mindset for a wide range of positive traits.

The hit Channel 9 program Parental Guidance is that rare reality show that is both “real” and really informative.  Take this week’s challenges - the knuckle-whitening high-dive, the earn-$20-in-two-hours and the off-to-the-shops-for-milk segments.

All of them were about one thing: developing a quality that psychologists call “self-efficacy.” 

It’s a mindset experts say gives kids confidence, competence, and a sense of control - even when the world around them feels chaotic. 

Children with lower self-efficacy are more likely to feel pessimistic and depressed, and to give up when the going gets tough. And they’ll be far more likely to develop addictions in order to combat those negative feelings.

Simply put, self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to succeed. Defined by Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura back in the 70s, it is now believed to be the foundational mindset for a range of positive traits. Grit. Resilience. Perseverance.

little engineThe classic children's book The Little Engine that Could celebrated the benefits of "self-efficacy" long before psychologists used the term 

The challenges set for the families on Parental Guidance are textbook examples of self-efficacy training. They involve achievable but still challenging tasks: conquering fear by jumping off a high diving board. Walking to the shops for milk. Brainstorming ways to earn money - and then following through. Reading a map to guide the family to a certain destination. 

Psychologists call tests like these “mastery experiences.” And they are the most important tools in the parental toolbox for developing strong self-efficacy in kids.

Emptying the dishwasher is no substitute for a plunge from the high-diving board.

Challenges for parents, too

It’s interesting that, on the show, each of these tasks presented parents with some clear challenges, too. Encouraging their children to take control of situations and develop autonomy meant mums and dads were forced to take a back seat. Relinquishing that control was clearly as much of a growth experience for parents as it was for their children.

The show’s resident expert, Dr. Justin Coulson, who has six kids of his own and a PhD in psychology, makes the point that too much “helicoptering” can deprive children of the opportunity to test their own powers of flight - the primary means to develop self-efficacy.

Other experts have noted that over-parented kids may develop the opposite mindset: “learned helplessness,” associated with anxiety, depression and lack of motivation. 

Equally, though, Dr. Coulson warns against parents “pushing kids out of their comfort zone.” Inviting them and encouraging them to do so - and offering an appropriate level of support along the way - is what parents need to aim for. 

Mastering the screen-free challenge

The 24-hour-screen-free challenge was another exercise in self-efficacy for the kids of Parental Guidance. And “surviving” the break - and in many cases positively relishing it - would have been a powerful experience for every child, but especially those at risk of developing an addictive relationship with their devices. 

Life without screens - even for 24 hours - is perhaps the most valuable “mastery experience” today’s digital kids can have. 

Experts agree that the best way to cultivate self-efficacy is to ensure kids are presented regularly with challenging real-life tasks. Weekly chores are great - but they won’t necessarily stretch kids, and lead to that confidence boost that’s at the heart of self-efficacy. 

Emptying the dishwasher is no substitute for a plunge from the high-diving board.

So, in addition to their regular jobs, get your kids to do something today that they’ve never done before - a challenge that they (and you, maybe) are just a little bit daunted by. As one of the show’s dads assures his young daughter, “It only takes a second to be brave!”

With just a few clicks from your smartphone, Family Zone lets you manage your child's social media screen-time  - and so much more. 

Create a home where children thrive, and start your free trial today.




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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, online safety, self-efficacy, mastery experiences, helicopter parenting

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