Most parents want nothing more for their children than to be happy and to succeed in life. Parents often spend a lot of time and money to help children in school become strong students. Teachers and schools emphasize grades and test scores as indices of how your child is doing, and even your child’s potential. Many people feel that children need to be intelligent or have good grades to become successful in life. The truth is, however, that there may be something more important than academics that we should be teaching our children.
Dr. Carol Dweck, a prominent researcher from Stanford University, suggests that it is more about your child’s mindset than her intelligence (or academic aptitude) that helps your child become successful. She has done many years of research on the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset.
In the fixed mindset, children believe they have a certain amount of talent; nothing can be done to change it. This mindset is quite limiting to children. They feel the need to prove themselves and hide difficulties, and reacting defensively to mistakes or setbacks. With this mindset, mistakes imply a lack of talent or ability. People in this mindset will pass up important opportunities to learn and grow if there is a risk of uncovering weaknesses. Children with a fixed growth mindset can become easily frustrated and upset upon making mistakes, and will give up easily if they meet a challenge. If something bad happens to them, they tend to feel helpless and overwhelmed, like there’s nothing they can do to make it better.
In the growth mindset, children believe that their talents and abilities are continually developed through passion and persistence. For them, it’s taking risks, surrounding themselves with people who will challenge them to grow, and learning from their mistakes. These kids have hope. Hope in themselves and in the future. They believe they can make a difference. They are ready for a challenge. I saw a t-shirt this week that said, “Bring it, Life.” That shirt is a good example of a growth mindset.
Even though children with a growth mindset tend to outperform children with a fixed mindset, (even when intelligence and test scores are accounted for), it is not about the outcome. For them, it is finding joy in the task. It is learning to enjoy a challenge, and use the people and resources around them to meet those challenges successfully.
How can we parent to encourage a growth mindset?
Praise your child’s efforts and participation the process of growth.
Rather than saying, “You’re a smart kid. You did well on that test,” say something like, “You put a lot of work into that assignment. Your hard work paid off!” Rather than praising a fixed characteristic like being good in math or intelligence, praise something that reflects growth, like effort, challenges, and risks. Help them set future goals that don’t overwhelm them, but that continue to help them stretch and grow.
Minimize the attention for perfection and increase your attention for a growth-mindset.
For example, it is better for your child to try something out of his or her comfort zone than to do something easy in a perfect way. Encourage your child to take a few risks, and praise their efforts if they make mistakes. Talk to them about how hard it is to be brave and face blunders and embarrassment for the sake of trying something new. This bravery is particularly in junior high and high school. Your child will need extra support at this time in their life. Teach them to remember the times that they have been through previous challenges, and how they handled them. Teach them to remind themselves that they can get through this too, even if it takes a few attempts. You could even teach them a mantra to say in these times such as, “Bring it on.” Remember, the point of learning is to make an impact on the world, not to achieve a letter or an award.
Model gratitude for the challenges.
My father-in-law has a great perspective on life. Once, when my husband took a job he didn’t like, his step-dad told him, “Be glad, Mike. You’ve learned another thing that you don’t like to do.” Rather than see the job as a failure, he taught my spouse to see it as a learning opportunity. The same strategy can be used for many things. When my 8 year-old didn’t pass a difficult swimming class the first (or second) time, we continued to talk about each skill that he was improving, and how much stronger his swimming became. We talked to him about other things he enjoyed in the class, like the teacher and the other students. We praised him for his efforts and his enjoyment along the way.
However, Dr. Dweck, in an article in the New York Times on 1/21/16, reported that praise is not enough. “When a child is trying but not succeeding,” she writes, “appreciate the effort. Then add: ‘Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.’ When a child is discouraged, avoid the “you can do it if you try” trap. Instead, acknowledge the challenge. ‘That feeling of math being hard is the feeling of your brain growing.'”
Teach your child that with enough persistence and effort, they will achieve their goal. But the main point isn’t the achievement, it is the process. For example, for my 8 year-old, we encouraged him by saying, “You will pass this swimming class eventually. What do you think you need to do to pass? I’m proud of you for having some fun in the process. ” My spouse’s step-father may have told my spouse something like, “You will find the right job. You are one job closer! What do you think you will look for in an employer next time?”
Be aware of your own mindset.
Oftentimes, our children watch what we do far more than they listen to what we say. Be mindful of your own mindset. Are you using a fixed mindset to manage stress ? Or are you modeling flexible thinking, and learning by doing? Life is a powerful teacher, but there will be mistakes. Owning up to these mistakes (and what we are going to try next time) to our children can be a big step in teaching them how to handle their own imperfections, and to keep going. Think of success as something we learn, not something that we are. As Dr. Dweck says, “The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?”
That point is just as important to adults as it is to children. Maybe even more important, since we are teaching them.