Why Kids Need A Growth Mindset

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Why kids need a growth mindset and how to cultivate one in yours

The growth mindset concept has really gained a following in recent years, and I expect most of you have heard something of it. My favourite book on the subject is by Dr Carol S. Dweck, called Mindset, where she uses amazing real-life examples to illustrate the differences in fixed- and growth mindsets and how one can work at nurturing the latter.

In the most basic terms, a fixed mindset maintains that a person has permanent traits which can’t be changed (eg. Being naturally artistic, naturally intelligent, naturally sporty). A growth mindset, on the other hand, says that people are constantly developing and can grow and improve abilities (even those seemingly non-existent).

The truth is that most of us will vacillate between a fixed- and growth mindset throughout our lives, but the trick is to catch yourself when that fixed mindset begins to take over. For kids, having a growth mindset is natural and easy, until the world, their parents and all those other negative influences creep in. Perhaps that doesn’t seem so bad, it would be simple to assume that the child will pick the mindset up in later years, when it would be of more use to them in a school or social setting. But consider that a child spends their first 4 years almost ‘setting up’ the framework of the person they will be. In that case, wouldn’t it be vital to instill a growth mindset in them as early as possible?

In her book, Dr Dweck notes, “Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance” and “if success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb”. These are concepts learned right from the start. Long before the first time your little one stacks their first block or learns their first word you’ll find yourself praising their accomplishments (no matter how small) with comments like “Oh you’re so smart!” or “What a clever girl/boy!”. And what you are doing, even in the early days, is teaching your child that you are only happy when they succeed, you only praise them when they do something right.

By praising their intelligence now, you set up their mind to believe that it must always succeed because it is smart. Later, when faced with a challenge they cannot put their finger on, they will go to pieces, question their abilities and their intelligence, and be put off trying anything even remotely challenging in the future. Rather praise the process – praise their persistence but suggest different ways of doing things if their method is not working. Remind them constantly to ask for help if they need it because asking for help is not a bad thing and is absolutely not a sign of weakness!

Think about your reaction when your child is trying to stack his first blocks; he is trying so hard and concentrating with all he has but the block just won’t stay put on top of its mate. Your boy gets frustrated and lets out a sound of exasperation – maybe he even starts to cry – so you pick him up, cuddle him, say “Oh those silly blocks, why won’t they stay up!” and off you go to another activity that won’t get him upset. You may think you are saving your child, but have you ever considered getting down to his level, calming him down and then asking him to have another go? Show him, even if it’s for the thousandth time, how you do it. Saying “Hey, I am so proud of you for trying so hard! I know it can be tough to do new things, but this is how you learn, and isn’t learning fun?”

(Sure, you may feel ridiculous talking to a baby like that – but I promise it will do amazing things. Say it in your cutesie baby voice if that makes you feel better. By practicing now, both you and your child will develop the correct mindset for success in not just studies but in life.)

Always remember though, that you know your child better than I, or any doctor, ever could, so if you can see the frustration is past ordinary levels and there’s no chance your child will be able to calm down enough to focus on trying again, then by all means move away from the activity and come back to it later. But gauge the situation and see if he can give it another go, or at the very least use it as a teaching moment. And please, by all that is good in the world, don’t blame the blocks.

Another way to think of it, which will resonate with my guilt riddled mom readers, is that praise focused on intelligence is so easy – “You’re so smart” is the quickest, easiest throwaway comment in the world. It takes more effort and more thought, and you certainly have to be more present, to praise in a way that will encourage growth – “You studied so hard for that test and I can tell you really tried your best!” It requires more input, by asking questions to emphasize and praise the process rather than the result, for example: “How do you feel when you practice on your instrument so hard and finally get that piece of music right? Or “I love the colours you chose for your drawing, why did you decide to paint that green?” So just by changing the way you talk about your child’s daily activities can go a long way in appeasing that constant mom-guilt voice asking you if you put in enough effort today.

(Side note – We all have that voice. You are an amazing mom and you should totally ignore it. But I know that it’s super difficult so hopefully this helps quite it a bit!)

Now, what happens if your child nails the activity/challenge the first time? It’s best not to say things like “Wow, you did that so quickly and without any mistakes!”, because this teaches them that only perfection receives such happy reactions. I prefer to laugh a little and say something like, “oh no that was too easy for you! We’ll have to come up with more of a challenge for the next one!”

But then, be sure that you don’t set too easy a task for them to boost their confidence! They will either know that you’ve done so, or worse they won’t, and will instead avoid challenging tasks for fear of disappointing you. Set them high standards but do so in a nurturing environment where there is an atmosphere of trust that they can fail in without fear of rebuke. They will succeed through perseverance and hard work – which you will, of course, praise. And every time they don’t succeed you will be there to help them see that the failure is a learning opportunity.

Another one which can cause regression to the fixed mindset language, is those days when your child is just being difficult. It happens, they can’t be perfect every second of the day! You’re doing an activity together and your child isn’t focusing, his mind is wondering around despite your best efforts to keep him focused, his attempts are slap-dash and half-hearted. Don’t get angry. Simply point out very clearly that he is going to miss out on a super fun learning opportunity! Make it sound so sad that he won’t be able to learn because he doesn’t want to try. Then ask if perhaps he wants to it give his full attention and give it a real go, or if he would like to try it a different way that works better for him. If he still doesn’t want to do it, move away from the activity. If he does try and fails, congratulate him on sticking to it. If he tries and succeeds, remind him that it was his perseverance that got him there, and that he should always try his best even when he may not feel like it.

Be very aware of the words you use with your children when describing them (or even describing others in front of them). You can’t tell them to work hard to be successful and then describe your co-worker as a born idiot! If your child breaks something accidentally, spills something, falls over (as they so often do), try not call them clumsy or silly. Accidents happen. With practice and concentration they will happen less, but they will still happen and that’s ok. This is something they need to know right from the word go.

Would you prefer your child to say you wanted them to be the smartest, or that you wanted them to learn as much as possible and enjoy doing it? Will you teach them that you will “judge and punish” or that you will “help think and learn”? Will mistakes be something to punish, or something to eagerly learn from?

Teach your child to love learning, because it is a love they will carry with them for life! Be honest with them always – if they fail because they didn’t put in the effort, tell them so! Coddling them, blaming outside factors like other people or tools, or brushing it off as unimportant, sends the wrong message. Always ask “did you try your best?”. That’s not to say we don’t praise a win! But we focus on praising the process they took to get to that win.

As I said at the start of this, you will likely always struggle with ‘fixed-mindset reactions’, but you just stick to it. Keep a close eye on your actions and not just your thoughts. Focus on being sure your child understands  and hasn’t just memorized something, be it numbers, letters, social expectations or house rules (I always stop to explain to my child, even when it is something you subconsciously assume they know, like why we don’t eat food while on the toilet).

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