The Goldilocks Theory

I learned about a concept in grad school that discussed the notion of challenge and support in terms of how college students develop.  This concept, published by Dr. Nevitt Sanford in 1966, made logical sense to me at the time, which is probably why it’s one of the theories I still remember 17 years later.  (To all my professors…I remember ALL of the theories you taught me, of course.)

Please join our list

No spam guarantee.

Powered by Optin Forms

The idea is that an imbalance of challenge and support will result in a lack of personal growth.  Too great a challenge, without some support, may result in frustration.  Too much support, without a challenge, may result in a lack of learning and development, whether we’re talking about college students or kids of any age.  We need to get our challenge and support juuuuuust right.

For example, if your child needs to learn to read, you can’t just sit her down with a book and not provide any instruction.  That’s too great a challenge, and not enough support, so she is likely to get frustrated and not learn a thing.  Conversely, she isn’t likely to learn if you just read stories aloud to her each day.  That’s not enough challenge to engage the child in meaningful learning.

Most of our previous posts have focused on the challenges we need to provide our kids to prepare them for eventual adulthood and college, probably because in our profession we end up seeing a lot of the negative effects of too much support and not enough challenge.  For this post, we wanted to highlight the importance of support, because it is just as critical to development.

Assuming children are developmentally ready to learn the task at hand, the ideal balance of challenge and support will move them forward.  A lack of balance will cause them to stay where they are (or regress) in different ways.

So, how can we accomplish this balance?

Let them know they can safely fail with you.

We need our kids to be willing to fail.  That’s how they grow, learn, and find what they’re passionate about.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for poor decisions, but it does mean that there’s no need to react harshly when they fail at something they’ve tried with the best of intentions.

Help them learn when they do fail.

Guide them through thinking about why the failure occurred and what they can do in the future to be more successful.  Our daughter, at ten years old, decided at the last minute that she wanted to play in a local volleyball league.  She took so long to decide that there was a waitlist.  We didn’t berate her for being indecisive, but we did have a conversation about the consequences and how to make decisions more effectively when something interests her.

Give them the tools they need to succeed at new challenges.

If they are playing a sport, practice with them at home.  If they have a new part-time job that’s outside their comfort zone, talk about their day and give advice for how to meet the challenges of the position.  Teach them organizational and time management skills, so they can handle the challenges they are taking on.

Have a positive attitude about new adventures.

Make trying new challenges a virtue in your family.  (A family value, so to speak.)  Be positive and encouraging, and take on challenges yourself!  Talk about it and model that which you want to develop in them.  In doing so, you’re creating a supportive environment for taking on new challenges.

Recognize when the challenges are outpacing their readiness.

Don’t be afraid to step in and put on the brakes if your children aren’t developmentally ready for something they are facing.  Not every child is ready for potty-training, a sleepover, or that part-time job at the same time.  You know your children better than anyone, and it’s okay to slow down at times.  When they are ready, you’ll be there to support them.

“The point of us” is to raise independent kids and eventual adults, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that our support and love are critical components of that process.  The right balance of challenge and support will surely tip the scales in our children’s favor.

About author


Lori Smith and Scott Smith are higher education professionals with a combined 30 years experience working with college students. We also happen to be married to one another and are raising our own potential future college student.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top
Sign up here for Kid to College updates!
We respect your privacy.  
Thank you!