The Importance of a Growth Mindset

Dateline Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: We all strive to raise resilient children who understand the importance of hard work and have grit in the face of challenges that come their way. The growth mindset can promote resilience, grit and motivation.

Do you think accomplishments reflect innate talent, or hard work?
Do you bounce back from a failure and try to find a new approach to the problem?
Does your teen understand that it is effort, not native intellect that leads to success?

Creating Resilient Kids:
Researcher Carol Dweck has dialed in on some critically important information about how we learn to manage challenges in life. And according to Dweck and her colleagues, changing just one thing many of us say to our kids without thinking could make a huge difference in how they come to think about themselves and their skills, and whether they respond well to the inevitable setbacks that happen to us all. What is that thing? How we respond to them when they do something well and how we support them through setbacks.

Imagine for a moment your second grader bringing home a math worksheet with a big smiley face on it, mirrored exactly by the one she is wearing on her own, dear face. What is your first instinct when she jumps up and down, waving the paper happily in your direction? If you are like most of us, you’re likely to grab her in a celebratory hug and say something like, “Wow, sweetie, look how smart you are!” Well, according to Dweck, this natural instinct has the potential to backfire down the road.

Tame our instinct and encourage motivation in our children:
What should we do instead? The bear hug stays, of course! This is, after all, a cause for celebration. But instead of celebrating her smarts, Dweck suggests we turn our attention, instead, to her hard work and its role in her success. Imagine yourself saying, “Wow, sweetie. You worked so hard on this, you must be proud of yourself. I sure am proud of you!” According to Dweck, this shift in focus pays off in a big way now, and continues to do so down the road.

What difference does it make?
Dweck explains that praising intellect in our children risks causing them to develop a fixed mindset—the belief that skills and talents are fixed and finite. And when we think that way, we tend also to believe we have reached the outer edge of our finite ability when we have difficulty meeting the demands of a new challenge, or even if we run into problems in an area of life we’ve always found easy. If we believe this about ourselves, setbacks come to be seen as indication that we’ve reached our maximum ability.

It is easy to think that way, in fact, most of us grow up believing how “smart” we are about something is fixed from birth. Much like the color of our eyes or our height, this way of thinking suggests we are destined to have a finite helping in the brains department.  When a child is praised for her intellect she starts to believe things come easily to her because of that intellect. Praising her instead for her hard work may seem like a subtle difference, but it is an important change. Parents who make this subtle but important change help their children learn it is hard work (not luck or being extra good at something) that leads to success.

What’s the big deal—isn’t it good to know you are smart?
Dweck refers to this recognition as a growth mindset, and the research is pretty clear. Kids who have a growth mindset do respond better to challenges—both in and outside of school—than do their fixed mindset peers. And, interestingly, they are also more likely to seek those challenges out, because they are less afraid of hard work. They also seek out challenges because they know failing now and then is not proof that THEY are a failure, but an inevitable part of learning and trying new things. And when they fail at something they are less likely to give up and more likely to regroup and try a new approach, especially when parents respond with acknowledgement of how hard they are working, and encouragement about trying again. In other words, kids with growth mindsets are more comfortable meeting challenges, more resilient in the face of setbacks and well aware it is hard work that gets them where they want to go.

You mentioned this pays off down the road?
Dewck and her colleagues have looked at the many ways a growth mindset plays itself out across the lifespan. People with a growth mindset make better employees, because they are open to feedback about their progress. They understand it is their hard work that gets the job done—and they work hard as a result. They also become better bosses and coworkers, because they don’t fall for the faulty notion that people have a fixed amount of skill. And if you don’t see other peoples’ skills as fixed, you welcome their capacity to learn and recognize the learning curve is a natural and inevitable part of trying new things.

This theory of the fixed and growth mindset is one important way to think about helping people reach their potential and become resilient to the bumps along the road. If you would like a place to talk about helping yourself or your teen better manage the rocky roads that come along in everyone’s life, please call me at 503-490-5793.

If you want to learn more about this important topic:

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.