I work at a university, and the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck is a hot topic in education right now. Ultimately, Mindset covers a lot of ideas, but the most widely discussed is that of shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
Generating a growth mindset is a different way of looking at learning, adversity, and success. (I urge you to read the book yourself; I really can’t fully sum up the idea in a blog post.) Adopting a growth mindset is understanding that intelligence is not a fixed thing. A person is not an IQ test, and people are not born with a static intelligence. This is a fixed mindset. It’s the idea that you are born with a particular package of talents and abilities, and that will not change.
In contrast, a growth mindset is the understanding that the brain is more like a muscle, that if worked and developed, it will grow over time, and intelligence and ability is something that can be developed with effort.
A big part of the growth mindset is to not tell children the results of their success, but to compliment them on the effort and struggle they put in to get there. Discussing their work ethic can help them to understand that challenges and failures are part of the development process rather than insurmountable hurdles.
Growth mindset also says that we should not tell a child they are smart or refer to them as gifted. This is usually where most parents take pause, a deep breath, and stop listening. But hold strong, there’s a reason.
Being labeled as smart has a lot of drawbacks. It places a person on a pedestal, and if they take risks, they might fail and lose their smart status. So they may be reluctant to challenge themselves for fear of failure.
Plus, when someone is labeled as gifted, they shouldn’t have to work hard, right? Nongifted individuals have to put effort into something, or at least that is what’s commonly understood. Things should come easily for smart and gifted people, and if you have to put effort (a lot of effort) into your learning, then you must be stupid. And mistakes? Well, smart people don’t make those either. All of these ideas are, obviously, not true. Accomplished and intelligent people work very hard and make many mistakes, but the damaging results of the idea that effort equates to less intelligence is a pervasive and damaging idea.
When I teach the growth mindset in the classroom, I often have students list the three people who inspire them most. Then they must list three ways the person failed before achieving success. They bring their list, and then we talk about the what-ifs. What if Michael Jordan quit when he didn’t make his varsity team? Where would he be now? We talk about persistence. We talk about how failure is a part of growth, and working through failure is a huge part of success, and ultimately the way to gain a growth mindset.
A growth mindset teaches that anyone can do well — or even excel — in any subject with enough determination and effort.
This is an idea I can really get behind on a personal level. In high school, I was in remedial English. When I first started college at age 22, I didn’t know how to type and I’d never read a novel. I wrote all of my papers by hand during my first semester of college, and then my girlfriend at the time, who later became my wife, typed them. However, my spelling was so poor, and my handwriting so confusing, that she couldn’t read my writing. We spent a lot of late nights at the computer, me sitting next to her, reading my papers out loud while she typed.
Now, years later, I hold an MFA in creative writing, work at a university, and have a successful writing career. If you are looking at the distance from zero, then I’ve come a long way, and it’s all because of effort — long nights of teaching myself how to type, forcing myself to sit down and read, failing time and time again, finding ways around obstacles, and learning to pick myself up and try again. I strongly believe that intelligence has a lot more to do with work ethic than genetics.
There are several ways to teach a growth mindset to your children, and most of them are simply subtle shifts.
For starters, help children understand that intelligence and ability are not fixed. They can change. They can get stronger or weaker depending on how much effort we are willing to apply.
Teach them that people with a growth mindset believe that they can learn, change, and develop needed skills. They are better equipped to handle inevitable setbacks and know that hard work can help them accomplish their goals. Use yourself as an example as needed, but also lean on the examples of others from sports, the media, or family members whom your children look up to.
The site Homeschooling With Dyslexia puts it this way, “Praise the process, not the results.” When your child does something well (sports, school, whatever it may be), discuss how proud you are of how much effort they put into the project. Parents tend to think that praising kids’ intelligence builds confidence and motivation. While this type of praise may give the student a short boost in confidence, this kind of praise also leads to a fixed mindset, one that is more concerned with looking smart and keeping the parent or teacher’s admiration than on actually working hard to learn. It makes them less likely to take the risks needed to grow, develop, and succeed.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t praise your children when they accomplish something. You should. It’s more about how you praise them by saying things like, “I’m so happy to see that your hard work paid off.” And when they fail, coach them through the failure process and let them know that it is one of many steps on the path to success. The overall goal of this strategy is to help children overcome adversity and realize that success is often a result of effort and determination.
Honestly, look back at your life. Look at all the challenges and failures you had to overcome to get to where you are. I’d have loved to have come at challenges with the understanding that they are all part of the path to success instead of feeling held back by my fear of failure, and I love the idea of teaching that to my children.