“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” – Carol Dweck
Part One: Coded Words, or Loving Praise Heard in Harmful Ways
“You were born to paint! It’s so easy for you. A naturally talented artist!”
“Look at this perfect math score! You’re so super smart and I’m so proud of you!”
“All your pitches looked like strikes to me. You would have won the game if the umpire had called a decent game.”
I don’t know of a parent who hasn’t used phrases similar to these at some point. I’ve been doing it for years. We say these things out of love. We say these things because we want our kids to feel good about themselves and their abilities. We say these things to protect them from feelings of failure or inadequacy, because when they hurt, we hurt worse. We want to send them into the world with confidence, because we’ve always been told that confidence is a huge component of success.
That’s why I was so shocked when I began studying mindset and learned that using words like those above, words I was certain were part of what made me a loving father, didn’t have the intended effect. Confidence isn’t a thing that can be given to someone. Kids need to grow it themselves. Furthermore, when kids hear certain kinds of praise, like the brand noted above, researchers are learning it can actually do more harm than good.
But how can praise be harmful? Carol Dweck, a pioneer on the topic of mindset, tells us that children are still learning to decode the world around them, and, unfortunately, they often find unintended meanings in our words. Consider for a moment those same three pieces of praise and the messages kids might be getting.
“If my math score isn’t perfect, I’m not super smart and you are not proud of me.”
“My performance was perfect and don’t have any need to improve. It’s other people who mess things up, not me.”
“I should just focus on the things that come easily to me. That way I don’t need to work at it.”
Obviously, nobody would purposefully send one of those messages to their kids. But evidence indicates there’s a good chance that’s how we’re heard. And the scary thing is, in those words we can see evidence of a fixed mindset: the belief that one’s intelligence or abilities are fixed traits, that we can’t learn more, be more, achieve more than we were “born” to do.
Don’t hear me wrong: praising kids is never the problem. It’s the kind of praise that matters. Instead of praising their achievements, we should be praising their work, praising their effort, their persistence, their struggle. With a simple shift in our language, a change in our own mindsets, we can help foster a growth mindset in our kids.
Take as evidence the results of a study conducted by Dweck. Children were given puzzles to complete. The puzzles were purposefully easy and could be completed without much effort. Once finished, half the kids were told, “You’re so smart! I love how you did that so quickly.” The other half were told, “Good job staying with it. I love how you worked hard at that and figured it out.” Next, all the kids were asked if they wanted to do the same kind of puzzle again, or try something more challenging. The kids who where were told they were smart and were praised for their speed overwhelmingly declined a more difficult puzzle. They didn’t want to try anything that couldn’t be done “quickly” and easily. The kids who were praised for their effort took on new and more difficult challenges.
Let’s take one more look at the pieces of praise listed above and see how we might reframe them to help foster a Growth Mindset.
“Look at this math score. You must have studied really hard! Maybe next time you’ll get a harder challenge.”
“Your team tried hard and I’m proud of you. I hope you had fun. The other pitcher must practice a lot. If you want to practice more, let me know and we can work in the backyard.”
“I can see how passionate you are about painting. I love how you work hard at it and you’re not afraid to experiment with colors and new techniques.”
Part Two: Unfearing of Failure, or How We Can Exercise the Brain Muscle
Failure is hard. Watching our kids feel hurt by failure is harder. But hardest of all is seeing our kids paralyzed by a fear of failure, unwilling to try new things because they might not be good at them, or unwilling to retry something at which they failed the first time. “I don’t want to go to school today. There’s a spelling test.” Or, “I know I love skating but I hurt my knee last time and I’m done!”
We all learn at an early age that the more we exercise, the harder we work our bodies, the stronger we will be. When we strain our muscles, they heal stronger than before. If our goal is to run an 8-minute mile, we know we will fail to reach that goal many times before we achieve it. If we want to be able to do 50 push-ups, we’re going to come up short many times before we get there.
Believe it or not, our brains work the same way. Our intelligence can be, should be, pushed to its limits, and when it is, we bounce back smarter than before. Often, that means coming up short of goals. Failing makes us smarter. Failure is how we learn. Unfortunately, we, and our kids, don’t always see it that way. Too often we allow the failure to define us instead of viewing it as a form of exercise. “Now I’m a failure because I didn’t pass the spelling test.” Or “I’m not a good skater because I fell.” We see our failures as a shameful part of our identity instead of something we can overcome, or even as a thing to be proud of. Such a view is another symptom of a fixed mindset.
But how might kids go from fearing failure to embracing it as a part of learning, as part of a growing process? There are some fun ways! One of my favorite examples is to let them do their homework wrong. Shocked? Let me explain. Checking homework for total accuracy before they take it back to school may reinforce the idea that failure is not acceptable. Furthermore, many teachers only use homework to gauge the students’ understanding of the lessons, and not necessarily for final grades. Instead of checking to make sure the answers are right, check for a general understanding of the concepts being taught. And if they happen to have an answer wrong, try letting it go.
Another fun example is to read books, tell stories, or watch shows in which characters exemplify a Growth Mindset by learning from mistakes. Younger kids might like Curious George, who learns a lesson in every episode, but only by making some atrocious, and charming, errors in the process. Or talk about Michael Jordan, who sophomore year was cut from his high school varsity basketball team, but used it as motivation to train harder. He finished his high school career being named to the McDonald’s All American Team. When you’re in the growth mindset, failures are life-lessons, brain exercises, not labels.
But maybe the best way is for us as parents to embody the qualities of a growth mindset ourselves. Make mistakes, and the lessons we learn from them, a part of the regular household conversation. Share stories from your day about your own failures and how you grew as a result. Ask your child to share similar stories. If your child does share a mistake from their day, resist the natural urge to explain to them what they could do better next time. Instead, give them a chance to tell you their ideas on how to improve. You can always guide them after they try to problem solve on their own.
Part Three: Dare to Not Compare, or Finding Joy Outside of Wins and Losses
Your child was beaming with pride after earning a 95 on a test, only to become crestfallen when someone else scored a 96. Your child quit orchestra when he or she was not named first chair. Your child routinely corrects and talks over siblings and friends. If these circumstances feel familiar to you, then you know how hard it is to have a child with a constant need to look smart in the eyes of others, if not smarter than others. It’s frustrating. It’s heartbreaking. You wish they could feel secure without constant validation, but they just can’t, and your steady, loving reassurances aren’t doing the trick.
We’re on the other end of the spectrum now, where children in the fixed mindset aren’t just afraid of failure: they’re afraid of not being absolutely perfect. For some in the fixed mindset, their abilities need to be viewed as superior in any given moment, and if they’re not, the takeaway is that they’ll never be good at anything, because their brains and abilities can’t grow. What you’ve got is what you’ve got. It’s not enough to be good. You need to be the best.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to achieve great things, striving to win, wanting to perform at the highest level. But winning can’t be the only joy. When feeling successful demands that others lose, or when the achievement of another person takes the joy out of everything that’s been accomplished, it may be time to redirect focus from achievement to the joys of the process, the pleasures of learning, the fun of playing. It’s time to take another opportunity to foster a growth mindset.
One approach might be to find cooperative games to play with them, rather than games in which there is a clear winner and loser. There are many! Check out board games like “Hoot Owl Hoot” or “Race to the Treasure” in which players cooperate with one another to achieve a goal, rather than compete against one another for superiority. Dr. Carol Dweck, who I mentioned earlier, has worked to create games that shift the focus from achievement to trial and error. GoZen! has also developed an exciting card game called Mindset (r)Evolution, which is not only cooperative, but is specifically designed to demonstrate the importance having a growth mindset in order to be resilient and achieve.
If there are specific areas in which your kids are ultra competitive, hyper Fixed in their fear of appearing inadequate, find ways to remove the competition and remind them of their love of the activity itself. For example, if he or she is a math wiz, find math challenges for them outside of a graded, school context. If he or she is too focused on being the best soccer player on the team, spend time outside just kicking the ball around in the backyard instead of only playing at practice or games. By limiting exposure to competition, we can work to bring the love back to the activity itself, not just the winning.
Check out GoZen’s new cooperative card game: Mindset (r)Evolution