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Kathy Whelan

Posted on May 29, 2024

Soon after becoming a grandmother, I dug into a pile of children’s books I’d saved for years. Some of my favorites were the classic Little Golden Books. I hoped my grandchildren would enjoy these old stories even as so many other things vie for kids’ attention these days.

Lately I’ve been appreciating that these books are not just for children. In my health coaching work and elsewhere, I see adults, including myself, who could still benefit from their wisdom.

Take, for example, The Little Engine That Could, about a small, anthropomorphic train engine who agrees to pull a large train over a mountain. The path is long and steep, and the little engine was not built for such a daunting task. Yet she coaxes herself along, repeating the mantra “I think I can” until she reaches the top of the mountain. On the way down, she reminds herself of what helped her climb the hill: “I thought I could.”

“Self-efficacy” refers to our belief in our ability to complete a certain task or achieve a particular outcome. High self-efficacy helps us meet our challenges and reach our goals. “I think I can” was the little engine’s way of reinforcing her self-efficacy.

I often see clients lacking self-efficacy in relation to a health improvement they consider very important. This may stem from past perceived failures. Shining a different light on those “failures” allows them to be seen instead as partial or temporary successes. By noticing what went right and learning from what went wrong, self-efficacy grows. It also helps to look at other areas of life for skills that can be applied to the task at hand.

Self-efficacy is also enhanced by choosing the right goal, which brings to mind Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the story of a little girl who enters the home of a bear family uninvited. In the bears’ absence, Goldilocks tries out their beds, chairs and porridge in three different sizes, one for each bear. She decides in each case which size is “just right” for her.

The Goldilocks story is best known for this “just right” concept, which has been applied in various ways in science, business, and psychology. Atomic Habits author James Clear relates The Goldilocks Rule to goal setting in habit change, explaining that “humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.” Goals that are too hard engender failure while those that are too easy are uninteresting and demotivating. Using The Goldilocks Rule as a guide, we can choose goals that are just right for us.

We all know The Three Little Pigs, the story of three pig brothers, each of whom builds a house, one out of straw, one out of sticks, and one out of bricks. The pigs who used straw and sticks finished their houses quickly and had time to sing, dance and play while their brother continued to labor over his house brick by brick. A hungry wolf came along and blew down the straw and stick houses but not the sturdier brick house.

The tale makes clear that hard work pays off, something easily forgotten in today’s world of short attention spans and promises that quick fixes will solve our problems. I recently read an interview with Jerry Seinfeld, who said he and other successful comedians work on their pieces for months, even years, to perfect them. Why did I assume comedy came easily to Jerry? I should have known that for him, as for all of us, peak performance comes from patience and hard work.

Finally, there is The Little Red Hen, about a mother hen who could get no help from the other barnyard animals for the many tasks involved in making a wheat seed into a loaf of bread. It wasn’t until the bread was ready to eat that the hen had volunteers, at which point she did what we all need to do at times. In denying the lazy animals a piece of her bread, she set a boundary, a limit on what she would allow; in doing so, she took an important step for her mental health and wellbeing.

Although these books were written for children, their timeless lessons – believe in yourself, find what’s right for you, be patient and work hard, set boundaries – are far from childish. I hope you will join me in giving these stories another look with our own lives in mind.

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