I remember overhearing this conversation between Catie and Jianna when they were in 2nd and 1st grade. Catie was 6 years old and Jianna was 5.
Catie : What’s your favorite subject?
Jianna : I like reading and language. It’s easy and fun.
Catie : Easy is boring. I like AP and Math. Hard is fun. You don’t learn anything if it’s easy.
Catie said it like it was the most normal thing any 6-year old would say. As far as I can remember, we have been raising both of them in the same way. We could not have changed anything so quickly with them being only a year and a month apart. So I was surprised to hear Catie speak about challenges the way she did, especially when my thoughts resonated more with Jianna’s.
You know the saying that goes “ Do what you love so you don’t have to work a day in your life?” I believe in doing the things I love well, and I work hard for it. I may welcome challenges relevant to pursuing them but I tend to shy away from things I know I’m not good at.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what Catie said. I was impressed by her way of thinking and I believed that there was something there we could all learn from. I don’t know why she thought that way and all I could come up with at that moment was genes. She probably got it from her dad I thought.
I remember him winning a paper airplane-flying contest at a kiddie party once. A paper airplane! But he was in it to win it! He has a spirit of excellence about him that reflects on every task no matter how small. Well, he also thinks it’s fun to take on new challenges. Once he told me that when things start getting too comfortable, then it means you’re no longer growing. So I figured, maybe it was genes.
A few months back, I read an article that talked about different mindsets. It was a remarkable insight about the psychology of mindsets by Standford psychologist Carol Dweck. I watched her on a TED talk and I became interested in finding out more about her work. It was as if a door was unlocked and I had been given the opportunity to learn how to change the way we all faced challenges.
The groundbreaking idea on mindset explains the difference between having a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, are in-born. They believe that talent alone creates success— It’s either you have it or you don’t.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, and brains and talents are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and resilience for kids that allow for greater accomplishment in the future.
The growth mindset has already been identified as a good predictor of academic success. It has been shown to increase students’ motivation, grades, achievement and test scores, and the good news is- it can be taught.
How did we encourage our kids to have fixed mindsets anyway? There was a self-esteem movement that started in the 1980’s. Just like any other idea, it was paved with good intention-To instill self-esteem in our children through praise and encouragement. Anything damaging to a child’s self-esteem was thrown out the window since the assumption was high self-esteem resulted in positive benefits and better school performance. But recent findings show that parents’ well-intentioned praise can actually contribute to the formation of unproductive fixed mindset thoughts.
The trouble with all that praising and making our children feel like winners is it also shows them that failing is not ok. Weakness is not ok. It encourages the belief that you need to be perfect, or smart or talented to be happy.
During one of their research studies, the kids were praised for being smart after completing a challenge. When asked if they wanted an easy or a hard challenge for their next task, most of them chose the easier challenge because they were afraid of appearing less smart if they failed. They were also more prone to lie about their scores when they did not do as well in the next challenge. Maintaining their image became their primary concern.
On the other hand, most of the children who were praised for their efforts instead of their abilities chose to do the harder challenge because they were praised for trying.
A growth mindset praises the child for their efforts and seeks to help them understand. It encourages feedback and works hard to discover what else needs improvement thereby achieving real learning. It shows the child that through hard work and constant practice, they are able to improve their brain and their talent.
How can we encourage our children to have a growth mindset? I’ve put together some reminders that can help us as parents, because we too have to learn how to adapt a growth mindset.
1. Teach them the concept of having a growth mindset. When children understand how their brain works with a growth mindset, they are encouraged to work harder and they become more confident in achieving their goals. They understand that they can be good at anything with enough practice.
2. Practice the right way. Learn to look back and evaluate performance. It’s not purely about effort. Are you doing it right? If you keep working hard and you’re still failing, then it’s time to look back and reevaluate your strategy. It was Michael Jordan who said “if you practice 8 hours a day, but you get the technique wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way.”
3. Don’t give empty praise. Instead praise effort and strategies. Give them praise on things they spend time to cultivate and not traits or abilities they were born with like smarts or talent. Praising effort alone is useless when the child is not making any progress or is getting everything wrong. Empty praise will simply suggest adult’s low expectations. Try something like “wow, you’ve tried so many different ways to do it, now you’ve figured out how to solve the problem”.
4. Focus on what matters more -the value of learning. More than just academic achievement, check to know if your kids really understand what they’re learning and find a way to make it relevant. The learning has to be authentic. How can they apply what they’ve learned? What makes it important? More than just judging by grades as an end result, it’s more important to know and understand the fundamentals of the subject.
5. Allow them to make mistakes and change the way you handle their mistakes. Mistakes are a big part of the learning process. The perfect time for a child to make mistakes is when they are young and the parents are able to become a stable source of love and support. If you want them to develop self-esteem, allow them to experience challenges that teach resilience and help them grow. Give them non-judgmental feedback and unconditional support. If you teach them that making mistakes is actually a good thing, that it brings them closer to the right answer, then they will be more open in accepting challenges in the future.