Keys to Building Hope In Children: Part 4, Mastery

How to foster sustainable mastery in children

Posted Feb 22, 2013

I blog on the subject of hope. Thus far I have posted on the importance of Attachment (2/6/13) and Survival (2/11 and 2/13). As I mentioned in those first three posts, hope derives from strong attachment, survival, mastery, and spiritual resources. To be deeply hopeful, an individual must possess trust and openness, alternative solutions for problem solving, the ability to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviors, a sense of purpose and empowerment, and some form of faith, religious or spiritual.

This post will focus on mastery-related hope.

When you finished reading this blog, I encourage you to visit my hope website ( You will find a free, confidential, automatically scored Child Hope Test that is appropriate for children ages 7 to 17 years. Younger children will need some assistance but older children and teens can do it by themselves. The results include a Total Hope Score as well as sub-scores for Attachment, Survival, Mastery, and Spirituality (Each will be scored “low”, “medium” or “high”, as compared to a sample of children who have already taken this test.) There is also a parallel adult hope test to gauge your own hope profile.

Hopeful Mastery: Empowerment, Scaffolding, and Purpose-Building

Empowerment: The “Self-Objects”

Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut developed the idea of a “selfobject”, a composite psychic structure that forms within the child through interactions with caregivers and other key figures. For Kohut there were three kinds of self-objects that must emerge, two of them relate directly to mastery. One is the “mirrored self-object” which develops when parents confirm and admire a child’s strengths and specialness. The second is the “idealized self-object” which occurs when parents allow the child to merge with his or her experienced (idealized) sense of adult strength and power. Kohut believed that “ambition” derived from the mirroring process whereas “ideals” emerged from the idealization process. The bottom line: Do not skimp on praise and take seriously what you project as a “role model”; you child’s capacity for hope depends on it.

Scaffolding: The Zone of Proximal Development

Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner emphasized that effective parents have a way of remaining just a few steps ahead of their children to foster assertiveness and mastery. The influential Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky challenged educators to build on the child's “zone of proximal development”, that is, on both the child’s actual ability and the next level that he or she can achieve under the guidance of a mentor. (Adult sensitivity to a child's capacities is one of the best predictors of the child’s achievement and mastery-related motivation.) Simply put, a child’s hopes and abilities need to be roughly on the same scale. Do not be unrealistic. Do not project your own hopes. At the same time, do not aim too low.  Be a rocket-launcher not a helicopter.  Provide roots and wings.

Purpose-Building: The Role of Sanctions

Research by Carol Ryff, Martin Seligman, and others suggest that experiences of purpose and meaning are better predictors of overall life satisfaction as compared to more ephemeral feelings of happiness or joy. How do you build a sense of purpose in children? Psychology offers fours keys: rewards, pleasure, success, and sanctions. Children and adults gravitate towards activities that offer rewards and pleasure. Give your child a wide array of opportunities to experience both the “process rewards” of flow and engagement as well as the “outcome rewards” of praise, recognition, etc.

It is helpful for parents to introduce a variety of mastery alternatives to their children. Psychologist Robert Brooks referred to these as potential “islands of competencies”. A wise parent can provide repeated “success samplings” via careful “environmental engineering”. For example, if your child is not athletically gifted, then you might put more emphasis on music, art, or nature. Psychologist Rick Snyder suggested that parents provide mastery opportunities that span the academic, social, and athletic domains. He also advised parents to normalize “barriers” and “roadblocks” by providing children with plenty of examples of alternative strategies for goal attainment. Along the way, make sure to set clear standards and monitor progress.

Research by Robert Emmons showed that individuals work harder and achieve greater success when their goals are perceived by them as “sacred” or “sanctioned”. Unfortunately, in the West we have gone from a society that once put cultural sanctioning first, to one where it often comes in last, after considerations of fame, money, and other “perks”. The idea of sanctioning goals can be linked to inspiration. Find ways of exposing your child to inspiring stories. Select from a wide array of domains such as sports, science, technology, literature, and the arts. Do not forget everyday heroes like police, firemen, and teachers. This diverse sampling is important on two levels. It will increase the odds of finding role models who will resonate with your child’s unique set of talents and interests. More importantly, it will give you the opportunity to “lift” common elements; values such as perseverance, dedication, attention to detail, etc., that are still sanctioned, and still held, in a sense, as “sacred”.