Determination: Back to the Basics

I think I can! I think I can! I think I can!

This familiar phrase was made famous by Watty Piper’s well-known children’s book The Little Engine that Could.  In the story, the little engine must overcome a challenge; she has a long train of cars and cannot carry them up and over a big hill.  After looking for help, she finds it in another little steam engine.  With the help of her new engine friend, the little engine persists and carries her long train up and over the big hill. Chanting “I think I can” over and over again, the two are determined to succeed and, after successfully completing the task, exclaim “I thought I could! I thought I could! I thought I could!”

What can this familiar story tell us?  The power of determination and positive thinking. 

I was recently teaching a Kid Fitness circuit class at my local gym and found myself relying on this story to teach an important lesson.  I start all of my classes (at KidFit Academy and beyond) with a purpose and intention—something everyone is individually and collectively working towards throughout our time together.  The focus of this class? Determination.

I opened, as always, with a quick guiding question: What is determination?  I was faced with blank stares.  A young group, this was not surprising.  So I changed my strategy, quickly thinking of The Little Engine that Could.  As a group, we discussed the story and some key takeaways.  I then revealed that THIS was determination—working hard to accomplish something and not giving up when faced with challenges.  The light bulbs flashed as students got it! 

The story not only teaches determination in an all-age friendly way, it also teaches the power of thinking positively.  By expressing confidence, the little engine uses positive affirmation (I think I can!) to help her accomplish her goal (pull cars up and over hill) and to celebrate her accomplishment (I thought I could). 

However, I would challenge the little engine to celebrate the work along with the outcome (i.e. have a growth mindset).  We live in a world filled with failure.  And children should learn that hard work may lead to something they define as “failure” and that is okay. Increasingly, failure is being celebrated as an opportunity for growth but we still have a long way to go before people feel comfortable failing.  Therefore, as good as this story is to teach determination, I would argue that we—educators, parents, mentors, society in general—need to better prepare the next generation for the world they will inevitably encounter, failure and all.  There is obviously a fine balance that must be carefully considered. However, I urge us all to keep searching for improved ways to teach determination, along with other important life skills.

Determination does not necessarily bring the expected outcome; however, the effort and practice of being determined to overcome obstacles in a real and meaningful way always equals success.  Let’s teach our children the power of determination for determination’s sake.



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