“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.”
As you can probably tell from her words, Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck is deeply invested in motivation and achievement. She also happens to be the most important figure in developing the idea of the growth mindset. In fact, she’s the first person to write about it in a research-based way.
Having spent many decades studying success and achievement, Dweck settled on the idea that there are two mindsets a person can choose to implement at any given time: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
When you’re using a fixed mindset, you may think that your abilities and qualities (for instance, athleticism, or aptitude in test-taking, or musicianship) are simply static and unchanging traits — things that either you’re born with or you’re not. Individuals using the fixed mindset tend to ignore the effects of concerted effort as these relate to success in any given endeavor.
Individuals using a growth mindset, on the other hand, may come to realize that natural talent or intelligence is only a starting point, a baseline from which real progress begins. These people know that anyone can learn or do nearly anything through dedication and work. This outlook, perhaps because it fosters personal responsibility and agency, tends to kindle a passion for learning and a willingness to keep trying in the face of mistakes or failure.
Attribution Theory: The Grandparent of Mindsets
Though she can be credited with bringing a research basis to fixed-mindset theory, Dweck did not create these notions out of nowhere. A precursor to the idea of mindsets in the field of psychology is attribution theory, which sought to understand the ways in which individuals explain the reasons behind events or behaviors. In other words, to what factors do people attribute various outcomes?
Perhaps to its detriment, research in the field of attribution theory is largely based on people’s self-reported statements after personal successes and failures — hence the need for Dweck’s analytical approach. Still, however, attribution theory can provide useful insights into our thought processes around success and failure.
Consider, for instance, the following questions — and how you would answer them:
- If you are successful at a given task, do you attribute it to hard work and effort? How about luck? Or perhaps your own abilities or intelligence? Is it possible that you’d even give credit to someone who helped you?
- If you fail at a task, is it due to your lack of effort and hard work? Bad luck? Lack of talent or help?
- How do you convey these messages to your children?
Someone operating under a fixed mindset, as you might guess, would probably attribute failures to a personal lack of intelligence, talent, luck, or someone else’s actions. The consequences of consistently holding a fixed mindset — based on feelings of one’s own inability to change outcomes in any meaningful way — is learned helplessness. This is the feeling that no matter what actions you take, the result will be failure, unless someone else intervenes.
If you’re an educator looking to learn more about facilitating a growth mindset in yourself and your students, check out this post from my blog.
If you’re a parent and want to help your kids learn lessons about the growth mindset, read on for six key tips.
1. Work on yourself.
The first, and possibly most important, step to helping your child establish a growth mindset is to work on developing one yourself. This type of work is often difficult for adults — it’s hard to change thought patterns that you’ve used for years. You should begin the process by making an effort to identify self-defeating, fixed-mindset thinking. Examples of this include an overemphasis on perfection, a commitment to being happy and comfortable at all times, a desire to please everyone, or a fear of failure (to name a few).
The second step is simple, but not easy: Acknowledge that you have a choice and that you can stop self-defeating thoughts. When you receive criticism, for instance, don’t get defensive. Instead, think about the ways you can put feedback into practice the next time. Know that on a day-to-day basis you should strive for progress rather than perfection.
Working on your own mindset, as a parent, can help you to help both yourself and your child in a number of ways:
- You will develop your own awareness of the growth mindset.
- You will be better able to understand your child’s behaviors and thought patterns.
- You will be able to use your own experience to help your child learn the value of positive self-statements and model a growth mindset.
2. Go beyond the mindset jargon.
Because of the popularity of the growth mindset, and of self-help and pop psychology in general, there’s been an explosion of catchphrases and inspirational posters with sayings and comments such as:
- Keep going even when things get tough.
- Embrace challenges.
- You only fail if you give up.
These statements have some validity, but developing a growth mindset both in yourself and your child requires more than repeating (or hearing) these sayings. This mental shift demands hard work and ongoing vigilance. It also means accepting two things: A fixed mindset may be a sort of default setting for humans, and moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is a process that doesn’t happen overnight.
A column in the Hechinger Report explains that even when parents take the time to encourage their children to embrace a growth mindset, they often talk the talk instead of walking the walk: “[Parents] still respond to their children’s errors, setbacks, or failures as though they’re damaging and harmful.” The author goes on to say that when parents model “anxiety or over-concern” about academic success, they unknowingly guide their kids toward a fixed mindset and teach them to fear failure.
3. Praise properly.
Giving praise to your child is common and natural. But in doing so, you might inadvertently be promoting a fixed mindset. Telling children that they are smart or talented — despite the fact that you have the purest intentions — actually reinforces the idea that “natural” intelligence and ability are in some way static and unchangeable. In other words, it suggests to kids that their own hard work didn’t help them do well, and that their intrinsic abilities matter more than the effort they put into a project or a problem.
The danger here is that, when they’re praised for being smart, kids face a serious challenge the first time they don’t do well in school. Over time, children may begin to shy away from challenges due to fear of failure, or even quit when they hit a small snag in a plan.
As the Hechinger Report article notes, Dweck encourages adults to give praise in very specific ways — to focus on the value of the learning process, on kids’ strategies, and on the ways in which both of these things contribute to positive as well as negative outcomes. She suggests using phrases like, “Wow, you really practiced that, and look how you’ve improved,” or, “See, you studied more and your grade on this test is higher.” Other examples include, “You tried different strategies, and you figured out how to solve the problem,” and, “You stuck to this and now you really understand it.”
4. Embrace the word “yet.”
As Dweck herself put it in a TED talk, “Just the words ‘yet’ or ‘not yet,’ we're finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence.” According to her research, simply leaving possibilities wide open has the power to jolt kids out of a fixed mindset and into a growth mindset.
Just adding “yet” to a despairing sentence like “I can’t,” changes its meaning and opens doors for growth and opportunity. Similar thoughts, like, “I can’t do complex multiplication,” and, “I can’t hit the baseball” take on very different meanings with the addition of that one word. This linguistic trick implies that kids can and will master these skills; it’s just a matter of time and effort. Sesame Street even created a music video about The Power of Yet to promote that message.
5. Take advantage of mistakes.
Making mistakes and accepting failure are natural and important parts of the learning process. Adopting a growth mindset in the face of failure provides both short- and long-term benefits; it turns mistakes into challenges for triumph — just speed bumps along the way to learning and mastery. When children make a mistake, Dweck explains, parents and teachers should be ready to praise them for their efforts, but not their efforts alone. They should also be sure to point out new ways of approaching a given problem, ones that point out the flaws or shortcomings of a previous strategy.
Of course making mistakes and failing is tough to manage, both for parents and children — but if you really want to help your kid develop a growth mindset, you need to help normalize mistakes and failures. You should use these potentially painful experiences as springboards for learning and progress.
6. Let kids fail.
As Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure, explains, parents and teachers shouldn’t solve problems for kids. Instead, they should “do the responsible thing”: Sit back, and allow them to fail. The basic process of trial and error “is how children learn and make discoveries about themselves and the world around them.” She’s quick to add that this rule applies both on a small scale (like using a dishwasher) and a large one (like creating a science fair project).
Learning to accomplish simple things (a process that will eventually lead to autonomy) fosters a sense of accomplishment and pride in children. This process leads to curiosity, independence, and persistence. In short, to use Lahey’s words, learning from failure “makes [kids] independent thinkers and doers who can cope with the ups and downs of life.”
As Henry Ford once said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently."
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