Last week my six-year-old daughter put on an impromptu talent show with some of her dolls. Princess Tiana, Ariel, the redhead from the movie Brave and Mulan sang and danced together like any girl group who had gotten together for the first time with no rehearsal. After about 10 minutes, I thanked her, and told her that it needed some work. “Think about how you can make it better and try it again,” I said enthusiastically. Her mood shifted immediately, and I could see she was disappointed. When I asked what was wrong she wouldn’t say.
“Listen, it was a good show, especially for a first try, but I know you can make it better. Just try.” I don’t know if she heard me.
A few days later, a light went off when I came across an article by Carol Dweck psychology professor at Stanford University, about encouraging a ‘growth mindset’ in our kids. A growth mindset is essentially one in which we believe that the brain is like a muscle that is growing stronger with every challenge. The opposite of that is the ‘fixed mindset,’ based on the belief that we have an innate or fixed amount of knowledge in an area. An example of that would be when we say, “I’m no good at math.” Our belief is that we’re as good as we’re going to get.
According to Dweck, when it comes to our kids, even if we want a growth mindset- don’t we all want our kids to keep learning and believing that they can get better at anything with time and effort?- we encourage a fixed mindset by overpraising them.
I’m guilty of it. I’ve told my daughter who frequently gets 100’s on her tests in school that she’s so smart! I say it because I want her to know that she’s intelligent and I feel like it helps build her self-esteem. Dweck says, however, that by praising the result without acknowledging the process that it took to bring about that high score, I’m setting her up to believe that her intelligence is automatic, and didn’t come about through work, which is a fixed mindset. She’ll likely expect to do well and get easily discouraged when she doesn’t, and also shy away from trying new things that might make her look not so smart. A better way to acknowledge a kid’s accomplishment would be to praise the process/effort that it takes to do great work. So instead of saying, ‘You’re such a little genius for getting all those A’s on your tests!” I could try, “You really study for your tests and the work pays off, Congratulations!”
However, encouraging the effort doesn’t mean forgetting about the results, says Dweck.
“Outcomes matter. Unproductive effort is never a good thing. It’s critical to reward not just effort but learning and progress, and to emphasize the processes that yield these things, such as seeking help from others, trying new strategies, and capitalizing on setbacks to move forward effectively.”
Her studies have proven time and again that kids who are encouraged to focus on improving their skills over how smart they are tend to embrace challenges and work through setbacks much better, ultimately reaching higher results, than those who think they already have it figured out. Schools that have adopted the growth mindset in their teaching have had major breakthroughs breaking down stereotypes when it comes to women in Math and minorities when it comes to learning in general.
Seems so simple. I think about my own life and how many things I quit because I didn’t have a growth mindset. I wasn’t concerned with learning or getting better over time. I just wanted the praise. The money. The reward. Just give it to me now.
Looking back, I was always told how smart I was from as early as I can remember. Maybe I was too smart for my own good because it gave me nowhere to go. I mean, what’s left when you’re a genius at four and five-years-old? How about if someone had told me that I had a great ability to learn? That I knew how to work hard and stick with a project till I figured it out? That my brain was evolving like a superhero every time I overcame a challenge?
It’s what I will tell myself and my girls from now on.
This article appeared on Madamenoire 1/21/16