Help your child choose to try: Foster a growth mindset

Book Review: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. (2006)

Your personal success depends on your attitude and Stanford Psychology professor Carol Dweck wants to help you improve it. What’s more, her research on the link between mindset and success has powerful implications on how parents and teachers can encourage children to become effective learners.

mindsetDoes your child fit the profile of a fixed mindset or a growth mindset? Dweck describes how children in a fixed mindset try to avoid failure by cheating or not seizing challenges, and constantly doubt themselves and their abilities. They refuse to hold themselves accountable for failure, do not bounce back from it and do not learn from it. Children in a growth mindset thrive on challenge and eagerly recognise and examine their own mistakes so they can improve.

A growth mindset gives people a positive way to handle failure: pick yourself up, dust yourself off and learn from your mistakes. The learning process keeps going and will not come to a screeching halt just because a test identified a weakness. Tests are crucial to the learning process because they tell us what we need to learn. The following observations show how a child’s mindset is shaped by the reactions of parents and teachers to their successes and failures.

For Dweck, effort drives success. Do everything you can to encourage your child to love exerting effort:

  • Remind your child that successful people worked hard to get where they are. If difficult things seem easy for an experts, it is false to assume things are easy, or were always easy for them.
  • When your child does something easily, quickly or perfectly, praise the effort that led to his or her mastery of that skill. Then, move on to another more challenging skill! Learning is not supposed to be fast, easy or mistake-free.
  • Demonstrate that failures we can learn from are acceptable. This will encourage your child to attempt new and difficult things. Children who afraid of failure seldom experiment or attempt something unless they are sure they will succeed.
  • Focus on process over result. Say, “I see you used a wide variety of colours and coloured with a lot of energy”, to convey to your child that you noticed their efforts. Saying, “What a perfectly beautiful picture! You must be an artist!” may lead the child to doubt your sincerity because you have exaggerated.
  • Forestall the development of an entitled attitude by fostering a growth mindset. Children with a fixed mindset think they deserve rewards for just being who they are. A growth mindset encourages effort to earn rewards.
  • Remember that effort should be fun. Effort should stem from a desire to learn and grow, not a desire to impress.

Other insights for parents and teachers:

  • Think of children as works in progress and get interested and involved in their development. Emphasise what skills children are developing, rather than what talents children have.
  • Encourage children to say, “I don’t know” and ask for clarification or explanation when they do not understand something. Pretending to know or understand something is not useful; actually knowing and understanding things is.
  • Do not use labels to characterise children. Negative labels give the impression that children have no choice but to embody those labels. If you give up, they give up. Positive labels like ‘smart’ make failure hard to cope with when inevitably children are ‘not smart enough’ to get something exactly right in the future. Labels discourage change and improvement.
  • Acknowledge that learning methods vary in effectiveness. If one method is not working, increasing the effort used to apply it might be less effective than trying something new.
  • Learn from children. Parents and teachers can grow, too! We can learn what works for them and how to explain things in ways that are interesting and helpful.

Dweck gathers insights from her own experiments and experience, history and the media. Real-life stories from the realms of sport, business and relationships make the widely cited Mindset: The New Psychology of Success an accessible read. The essence of Dweck’s advice is the persuasive idea that anyone can choose to try.

More from Carol Dweck at: