What makes kids persist? What gives them the “grit” to keep working hard in school, to get good grades and ultimately be successful in life?
A big contributor is having a “growth mindset.”
You may have heard about this before but many people don’t understand it nearly as well as they think.
To make sure you and I get it right I called Carol Dweck. She came up with the growth mindset idea. Carol is a professor at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
A lot of people are making a lot of mistakes when it comes to this subject. Here’s Carol:
As soon as a growth mindset became a desirable thing to have, many people started saying they had it. If they were open minded and flexible, they said they had a growth mindset. If they were kind to people, they said they had a growth mindset. A growth mindset is not something you declare, it’s a really difficult journey you take over a long period of time.
So let’s get to the bottom of what a growth mindset really is, what people are getting wrong, and how we can all use it to increase grit and success in our lives and the lives of our children…
What Is A “Growth Mindset”, Really?
A “fixed” mindset says that your basic qualities (like intelligence) are set in stone. You have what you have and that’s all you’re getting.
A “growth” mindset is the belief that your abilities can be improved through effort. And this means you can get better and hard work pays off. Here’s Carol:
When people are in a fixed mindset they believe their basic qualities, their talents, abilities, intelligence are just fixed traits, they have a certain amount and that’s it. When they’re in this mindset they often become concerned with how much they have. “If I do this will I look smart? Will I feel smart? Will people think I’m talented or not?” When people are in a growth mindset, they look at their talent and abilities as things that can be developed through hard work, good strategies, or help and input from others. They’re more willing to jump in, take a challenge, and roll with the punches because they’re not seeing everything as reflecting on their deep permanent ability.
When people have a fixed mindset and they don’t do well at something immediately, they quit. If you don’t believe you can really improve, why keep trying?
Students with the fixed mindset stayed interested only when they did well right away. Those who found it difficult showed a big drop in their interest and enjoyment. If it wasn’t a testimony to their intelligence, they couldn’t enjoy it.
But when you have a growth mindset, great things can happen. Here’s Carol:
When people are in a growth mindset they’re more willing to take on challenging tasks. They’re more engaged by mistakes or setbacks rather than discouraged. They delve into a mistake, they process it, they correct it. They’re more inspired by people who are better than they are, instead of intimidated and discouraged. In many of our studies we see that they achieve more in the long run.
In her research, when kids were encouraged to take a growth mindset, they showed more grit and got better grades:
In Study 1 with 373 7th graders, the belief that intelligence is malleable (incremental theory) predicted an upward trajectory in grades over the two years of junior high school, while a belief that intelligence is fixed (entity theory) predicted a flat trajectory.
Not only that, but getting kids away from a fixed mindset made them less aggressive and nicer:
Compared to no-treatment and coping skills control groups, the incremental theory group behaved significantly less aggressively and more prosocially 1 month postintervention and exhibited fewer conduct problems 3 months postintervention.
So a growth mindset is definitely a benefit. But there’s a catch…
Just because you might have a growth mindset doesn’t mean your kids will too. You need to make an effort to deliberately encourage it in your children. Here’s Carol:
One of the most intriguing things we’re finding now is that there isn’t a strong relationship between parents’ mindsets and their kids. Many parents may have a growth mindset but it’s not visible to their kids. They need to really focus on the child’s process, their strategies, their hard work, their use of resources and tie it to the child’s improvement instead of focusing on the child’s ability or just the outcome.
(To learn the number one mistake parents make when arguing with kids, click here.)
So how do you instill this perspective in your children — and not make the mistakes many people do when it comes to growth mindset? Here are 6 tips from Carol that will help:
1) Don’t Praise Ability Or Intelligence
When you celebrate a child’s abilities you promote a fixed mindset. They have a quality and they won’t want to “lose” it. So they’ll take fewer risks and will be more likely to quit. Here’s Carol:
A lot of our work shows focusing on the child’s ability, even complimenting the child’s ability, can make the child feel, “Oh, it’s fixed and you’re proud of me for that reason” and they may stop taking on challenges or they may see errors as serious.
Carol’s research showed praising a child’s intelligence instead of their effort reduced grit, made the kids enjoy their work less and they didn’t perform as well:
…six studies demonstrated that praise for intelligence had more negative consequences for students’ achievement motivation than praise for effort. Fifth graders praised for intelligence were found to care more about performance goals relative to learning goals than children praised for effort. After failure, they also displayed less task persistence, less task enjoyment, more low-ability attributions, and worse task performance than children praised for effort.
What should you compliment? Their effort, strategies and choices. This tells them that elbow grease is the way to improve, and it’s not all due to one “you-have-it-or-you-don’t” innate quality.
Remember that praising children’s intelligence or talent, tempting as it is, sends a fixed-mindset message. It makes their confidence and motivation more fragile. Instead, try to focus on the processes they used— their strategies, effort, or choices. Practice working the process praise into your interactions with your children.
(To learn how to raise happy children, click here.)
So you’re praising effort, not ability. Great. But what are the mistakes people are making with growth mindset that we need to address?
2) Don’t Ignore Outcome, Tie It To Effort
A lot of people think that praising effort means you should ignore the outcome — what the kid achieved. Wrong. You can celebrate a child’s success, but attribute it to their hard work, not innate talent. Here’s Carol:
Now a lot of parents have interpreted this as meaning always praise the effort and not the outcome. That’s an oversimplification because it’s not just effort, it’s also strategies and use of resources. It’s not “ignore the outcome,” it’s “tie it to the outcome.” Sometimes parents will say, “I’m so tempted to be happy when my child succeeds or masters something difficult but I know I shouldn’t,” and of course you should. Just tie it to the process, that what the child is supposed to learn is that a good process results in progress.
(To learn what new research says the most important parenting skills are, click here.)
But what if the kid doesn’t succeed when they try something? That’s not to be ignored, it’s actually very important…
3) Respond Positively To Failure
Another mistake people make with trying to promote a growth mindset is they think they have to gloss over or ignore when a child fails. Wrong again. This is a critical time for learning.
Showing the kid you don’t have to be perfect every time and that failure is how you learn and improve is quite valuable. Here’s Carol:
The other thing we’re seeing in our research is that the way parents respond to a child’s errors, mistakes, and failures is critically important. Many parents may have a growth mindset but they might worry that if their child experiences failure they’ll be harmed or lose their confidence and so they tend to gloss over or get a little anxious and the child picks up on that. What we’re finding is that it’s the parents who really respond positively to the child’s mistakes that show how they’re an opportunity for learning. Then the child sees that these setbacks are part of the learning process, and you can capitalize on them. They’re not something that should engender anxiety or make you feel inept.
(To learn what science says about how to have a happy family, click here.)
A lot of people are good at praising effort but still aren’t really encouraging a growth mindset. Why? Just saying, “Try harder” isn’t enough…
4) Don’t Just Say “Try Hard.” Help Kids Set Goals.
Effort is what you want to praise but encouraging blind repetition doesn’t teach a child the right perspective. You need to emphasize learning, the ability to improve, trying specific strategies and setting goals. Here’s Carol:
Just seeing a growth mindset as focusing on effort and merely exhorting kids to try hard — since when was that ever effective? It’s more like nagging than instruction, so exhorting kids to work hard is not a growth mindset. It doesn’t teach them about strategies and it doesn’t teach them that their brain grows new connections when they do something hard and stick to it… In general, goals should be challenging but doable and there should be steps along the way so that the child can see that what they’re doing is bringing progress. It’s very rewarding to see yourself progressing toward the goal. Then when the child reaches the goal, the parent can review what it was that the child did, that whole process that led to the learning.
(To learn the six things happy families have in common, click here.)
It may sound like your overall mindset is a light switch: either it’s fixed or growth. Nope. You can have different mindsets in different arenas. And that’s something that needs to be addressed…
5) Teach Growth Mindset In All Areas Of Life
Kids may have a growth mindset while playing sports (“I can learn to throw the ball better if I practice”) but not at school (“I’m just no good at math.”)
Children need to learn they can get better in almost every area of life if they work hard. Here’s Carol:
One thing to keep in mind is that if a coach teaches a growth mindset with respect to athletics it may not go anywhere else other than athletics. These mindsets can stay very anchored to a particular situation. We see many athletes who are tremendously persevering and risk-taking and learning-oriented in athletics but not in their academic work and vice versa. If we want our growth mindset teaching to have a maximum effect than we should tie it to other things.
(To learn how to make your kids smarter, click here.)
What’s a good specific way to convey all this to kids on a regular basis so they apply it?
6) Talk To Your Kids About Your Own Growth Mindset Efforts
Telling your kids how you personally faced challenges and then overcame them by effort (not by innate talent or intelligence) is a good way to discuss the subject in an organic way. (And it also makes sure you’re using a growth mindset regularly yourself.) Here’s Carol:
We should ask ourselves every day “What do I want to learn today?” and “What do I want to teach today?”, or “What do I want to facilitate in others?” That just keeps us in a learning mode. We’re all so busy, we have so many responsibilities and we have to keep learning the idea of learning in the front of our minds. Then, even at the dinner table, parents can talk about things they struggled with, mistakes they made and learned from and that could become part of the dinner conversation.
And when you tell kids any story think about the underlying message it’s sending: is it growth or fixed?
Every word and action from parent to child sends a message. Tomorrow, listen to what you say to your kids and tune in to the messages you’re sending. Are they messages that say: “You have permanent traits and I’m judging them?” Or are they messages that say “You’re a developing person and I’m interested in your development?”
(To learn the 4 new parenting tips that will make your kids awesome, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot from Carol. Let’s round it all up and find out the simplest way to convey the usefulness of a growth mindset…
Here are Carol’s tips for encouraging a growth mindset:
- Don’t Praise Ability Or Intelligence: That promotes a fixed mindset. Compliment effort, process and choices.
- Don’t Ignore Outcome, Tie It To Effort: You can be happy when your kid succeeds, but attribute it to effort.
- Respond Positively To Failure: They need to know that failure isn’t bad, it’s a tool for improving.
- Don’t Just Say “Try Hard.” Help Kids Set Goals: Blind repetition doesn’t work. Help kids strategize.
- Teach Growth Mindset In All Areas Of Life: There’s no area where they cannot improve with hard work.
- Talk To Your Kids About Your Own Growth Mindset Efforts: Practice it yourself and share your results.
Carol didn’t come up with the growth mindset idea just out of the blue. She grew up in a strict fixed mindset environment.
In the 6th grade her class was assigned seats based on IQ score. Class privileges were only doled out to kids with the highest numbers. This made her feel she couldn’t take risks or try new things because she might lose status.
But through her work she discovered a whole new way of looking at the world. One that made life far more rewarding and exciting. Here’s Carol:
Kids in my research studies would say things like, “I love a challenge” when I was giving them problems they couldn’t solve. It made me think, “Wow, they really like failure. How is that possible? Is that something I could learn too?” Over time, through my work, I took on more and more challenges. Some of them panned out, some of them didn’t, but I saw that my life was so much bigger and richer and rewarding when I took these challenges as opposed to the trajectory I would have been on where I had to show I was smart 60,000 times and then looking back and thinking “What did that add up to?”
When people have a fixed mindset, life is black and white. You have a talent or you don’t. You’re not in control and things can’t get better. You’re stuck. You just have to be what you are.
But when we take a growth mindset, we do have control. Our lives and our world can get better if we try. And with work, we can become better every day. That’s the kind of life we all want to lead.
As Carol says in her book:
“Becoming is better than being.”
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Eric Barker is a writer who has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 205,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.