The nitty gritty of growth mindset

It's trendy. It's important. But what does it mean and how do we nurture it?

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

It’s been a month since I began offering paid subscriptions to this newsletter, and I want to say THANK YOU to those who’ve subscribed. I put a lot of time and reporting into my work here, and every subscription helps to support it. Also, it’s been fun! I’ve gotten to know many of you through our weekly Thursday discussion threads, and I’m enjoying addressing broader parenting issues in my every-other-Friday “Dear Melinda” columns.

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And now, onto this week’s parenting question.

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

My 5-year-old refuses to work at things she isn’t immediately good at. I keep telling her that she’ll improve, but she says she doesn’t want to improve, she just wants to be great already. As you can imagine, she gives up a lot, and I am very frustrated and worried. Help!

Fondly,

I Quit

Dear I Quit,

Although what your daughter is experiencing is related to perfectionism — which I addressed in an earlier newsletter — at its root, it’s not really about perfectionism. It’s more about mindset.

At first, I was hesitant to cover growth mindset here, because I assumed every parent has been repeatedly hit over the head with the concept and is sick of hearing about it. (And also, because I talk at length about it in my book.) But when I asked my Instagram followers, they overwhelmingly disagreed. They want to learn more about growth mindset.

So here goes. First, let me start by explaining the other kind of mindset, the one that many of us know well because we were probably raised by parents who fostered it: Fixed mindset. When people have a fixed mindset, they believe that ability and intelligence are just that: Fixed. They think people are essentially born smart or not so smart, that people are naturally good at things or they’re not. When we think of ourselves as not very good at math, or very good at art, we are thinking in a fixed mindset. Likewise, when we tell our kids You’re so smart or You’re so good at ballet or You’re a natural on the soccer field, we are fostering a fixed mindset in our kids. We’re painting ability and smarts as black and white — as things you essentially either have or you don’t. (By the way, if you’re skeptical that intelligence is malleable, in my book I discuss evidence to suggest that it can be.)

The problem with having a fixed mindset is that it backfires when people encounter challenges or failures. Let’s say you’ve told your kid that she’s great at math, and then she gets a D on a math test. If she has a fixed mindset, she’s going to begin to doubt the ability you told her she had. Maybe, she starts to think, I’m actually bad at math. And if I’m bad at math, then what’s the point in trying?

Research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that kids who have fixed mindsets are more likely to give up in the face of challenges or failures. Often they give up before they fail — when they first sniff out a potential challenge — because they are desperate to preserve their reputation as smart or skilled. They don’t want to experience setbacks or failures, because to them, setbacks or failures are evidence that they are failures, and that there’s very little they can do about it.

Let me briefly describe one landmark study that illustrates the power of mindset. Dweck and her colleague Claudia Mueller had fifth graders take an IQ test, and then individually told the kids they had done well. But they framed the kids’ successes in different ways. To some of the kids, they said, “you must be smart at these problems” (fixed mindset), while they told others “you must have worked hard at these problems” (growth mindset). Then, they asked each of the students if they’d like to do some additional problems, but they gave the kids a choice: They could try problems that were “pretty easy, so I’ll do well” or “problems that I’ll learn a lot from, even if I won’t look so smart.”

Dweck and Mueller found that the kids who’d been praised for smarts (nurturing a fixed mindset) were more likely to choose the easy problems, whereas the kids praised for effort (nurturing the growth mindset) chose the hard problems. Interestingly, too, when the researchers later gave all the kids hard problems to see how they handled them, they found that the fixed mindset kids gave up sooner and said they enjoyed the challenge less. Want to know what else those fixed mindset kids did? They were nearly three times as likely as the growth mindset kids to lie about how well they’d done on the problems when talking to other kids afterwards.

A growth mindset is, essentially, the opposite of a fixed mindset. When people have a growth mindset, they consider challenges and failures as opportunities rather than setbacks — opportunities to learn and grow and get better at things. As Dweck explained in her book Mindset, in the fixed mindset world, “effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world [the growth mindset], effort is what makes you smart or talented.”

So how do we foster a growth mindset in our kids? Here are three overarching strategies.

  1. Praise effort — and tie effort to outcome.

A key way to foster a growth mindset is to praise kids when they work hard, and to tie their good outcomes to their effort. When they get a good grade, instead of saying Wow, you’re so good at Spanish! You might say, Wow, that good grade must stem from how hard you’ve been studying. When your kid does well in a dance recital or in a soccer game, replace You’re so talented with All that practice really paid off, didn’t it!

What if your kid does well on something after expending little to no effort? You might say something like I’m glad you got an A on the test, but I wish that you were getting more challenging material in this class, because challenges are how you grow your brain. And then perhaps brainstorm ways to introduce them to more difficult material.

And if your kid expends a lot of effort but still doesn’t do well, remember that effort itself doesn’t necessarily lead to progress; it’s productive effort that helps. Maybe your child needs to try out new study or practice strategies. Also, consider that your child could be improving, but the assessments are just getting harder — or it’s just hard for you to see the progress because it’s incremental.

  1. Let your kids fail.

Parenting is full of paradoxes. Here’s one: It’s our job to protect our kids from harm and danger. But we shouldn’t necessarily protect our kids from disappointment, frustration or bad feelings. It’s important that our kids experience various kinds of challenges so that they can learn how to frame and handle them properly — and so they can recognize them as part of the learning and growing process. We want our kids to know that it’s OK to not have all the answers, to not be able to do something immediately — that encountering a challenge is the first step to developing a new, more complex skill. So don’t rush in to help your kids every time they struggle with something, and don’t drive their forgotten homework into school so they can avoid the consequences.

Also, when we rescue kids from disappointment and failure, we send them a clear message: That we think they are incapable of handling the situation themselves. Rescuing our kids too much undermines their sense of self-efficacy, which makes them less likely to stick with things. When researchers at the University of Illinois surveyed elementary school students, asking them how they felt when their parents helped them and made decisions for them, the kids (especially older kids) overwhelmingly said that they considered their parents’ help to be a sign that their parents thought they were incompetent. (For more on the importance of letting kids fail, check out Jess Lahey’s excellent book The Gift of Failure.)

  1. Model a growth mindset yourself.

Earlier this week I stumbled across, and shared, a great meme on Instagram about the importance of letting yourself fail in front of your kids. Children learn so much from how we frame things in our own lives, so it’s crucial that we also try our best to model a growth mindset.

Look, I get it, this is hard. Many of us have spent our entire lives embedded in a fixed mindset, so we’re not going to get things right every time. And that’s OK! (Maybe we should talk to our kids about how challenging it is for us to adopt a growth mindset, but that we’re working at it and getting better? How very meta.) But when possible, embrace challenges and failures in front of your kids. Last week my daughter, who has just started playing softball, wanted to practice with me. I was, no question, the worst pitcher the world has ever seen, and we were laughing about it. I recognized the opportunity to frame the situation in growth mindset terms and said something like, Yes, I’m so bad at this right now! I’ve never pitched a softball before, so I need to practice and learn how to do it.

When good things happen in my life, I also try to tie them to the effort I put into making them happen. When my kids say something like Mom, that’s cool that you were on the radio talking about your book, I respond with something like Yes! I put a lot of time and effort into writing and promoting my book, and now it’s paying off.

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