Have you heard of the term “growth mindset” yet? Last term S’s school had a parents’ evening talk about this, and even showed a video of Carol Dweck’s amazing Ted Talk about it. Since then I’ve been reading more about the idea of a growth mindset, and was interested to see the term pop up in The Danish Way of Parenting, which I reviewed here last week.
What is a growth mindset?
Essentially, a person with a growth mindset believes they can grow, develop and improve themselves and their abilities. A person with a fixed mindset on the other hand, believes that their ability as it stands right now, is fixed. They can’t improve or develop.
A person with a fixed mindset may fail to do something and give up, thinking “I’m just not good enough to do that.” Someone with a growth mindset will fail and think to themselves, “I’d better go away and learn a bit more before trying again.”
So you can see, this is a useful thing to encourage in our children.
How do we encourage a growth mindset in our children?
This part goes against what comes naturally to most of us as parents – certainly it goes against what comes naturally to me.
When we say things like “you’re so clever” we might feel that saying this will build confidence and motivation – but studies have shown that the opposite is true. When we praise a child for being naturally gifted or talented, this promotes a fixed mindset where they come to believe that intelligence is a fixed thing. That might be great right now, when they’re learning letters and numbers quickly and surprising us with their reading, but there will come a point where they are given a task they can’t complete at the first try – and at this point they will think “I’m just not clever enough to do this.”
I speak from personal experience here; I was always “clever” in school. I and two friends were always top of the class in our first school (it was a very small class). When I got to secondary school I took a test which placed me in the bottom group for maths, so I figured I was just rubbish at maths. It wasn’t until years later that I realised: hang on, you were in the bottom group in grammar school and you still took the Intermediate GCSE, and you got a B without really revising much. Similarly, I coasted through college without really making much effort, and barely scraped through my A Levels. When I got to university I experienced a major culture shock, finding that I needed to work really hard and read a lot in order to keep up. I had never had to work hard before because I had always been “clever.” Now I wasn’t clever enough; I felt stupid, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I ended up dropping out of university, because of this and a few other reasons.
Research has shown that when we praise a child by telling them they are something, whether that’s clever, kind, good at drawing, whatever – it encourages a fixed mindset. I am good at this, and this is as good as I will get with it.
I find it really hard not to praise S like this, but I am working on it!
How should we praise our children then?
It can take a fair amount of effort to get out of the habit of saying “you’re so clever” or “you’re so good at drawing” – and the alternatives can feel a bit fake and weird to start with. But it’s worth it in the end, if you can help your child to develop more of a growth mindset, where they see a possibility for development and improvement in themselves. This is often referred to as process praise.
These days when S brings me a picture she has drawn, I will tell her I love the picture; I love the colours she has used; I love how imaginative it is. I might say that I can see she’s tried really hard with it. Instead of saying “what a great picture of a dog!” I’ll say “I love it; can you tell me about it? I love the bright colours/I love that the people are smiling/I can see that you’ve tried really hard with this”
After parents’ evening last term, I told S her teacher had been impressed with how hard she tried, and how much she had learned and improved.
I try to praise S for the effort she puts in, rather than the final result or her abilities. I comment on how hard she has tried, how well she has shared, how proud I am of her efforts. I focus on the effort, rather than the outcome. She’s not good at drawing/reading/dancing; she’s good at trying.
This feels weird, to begin with. It can feel mean even, not to say “oh, you’re so clever!” – especially if your child is used to hearing it, and other children are being told it. It just takes a little practice to get used to saying different things.
What does process praise achieve?
By praising the effort a child puts in rather than the outcome, we can be more authentic in our parenting. After all, if your child loses a game it’s hard to say “you’re so great at that!” but you can still say “I’m so proud of how hard you tried.”
When we praise effort, research shows that children want to make more effort; to learn more; to be challenged more. Children begin to see that it’s the effort they make, rather than their innate ability, that makes a difference. And this can lead to the sort of mindset that will try new things without a fear of failure, and will walk away from a failure thinking, “I’ll learn more and try again.”
You can read more about mindset – in adults as well as in children – in Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset.