There are always going to be those kids who are obsessed with winning at sports, getting perfect grades or bringing home a debate trophy. But if they become so results-focused that the outcome shuts out everything else and failure is to be avoided at all costs, it may mean that kids are stuck in a "fixed mindset," and may be cutting themselves off from learning opportunities. That's why it's so important for parents to develop a "growth mindset" in kids — and possibly themselves, too.
What is a growth mindset for kids?
A term first coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a growth mindset "refers to the idea that we can grow with hard work, perseverance and a willingness to go beyond our comfort zone," says Abigail Gewirtz, Ph.D, author of When the World Feels Like a Scary Place. This is opposed to a "fixed mindset," where people believe that intelligence, skills and talent are innate.
"Kids who have a growth mindset believe that hard work pays off — that they can accomplish more with a willingness to put effort into things and to try new things," Dr. Gewirtz adds. "This is important because motivation grows with mastery of something. There are many examples of highly accomplished individuals who ascribe their achievements not to any innate talent, but to lots of practice and perseverance."
There are other benefits to this type of worldview, too. "I really believe that children with a growth mindset become strong problem solvers, know to ask for help, have increased confidence, are persistent and do not shy away from challenges," says Tasha Brown, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York.
To shift kids from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, focus on the process instead of the results.
Try to shy away from saying things like "you're so smart!" and instead emphasize the hard work your child is putting in. Carlin Barnes, M.D., and Marketa Wills, M.D., MBA, the founders of Healthy Minds MD, offer these tips for getting started:
Ask your child what lessons they've learned from an activity or assignment.
Learn to praise effort instead of results (e.g. “You worked really hard in that game and I’m proud of you,” instead of, “Great win today!”).
Remind your child that failures are a part of life and allow us to learn and grow.
Teach your child to value and appreciate the experience instead of just focusing on the end result.
So, the next time your child is gearing up for a big game, for example, "praise the small details of the practice such as a shift in body control, or a way they arched their hand when throwing the ball," says LaNail R. Plummer, Ed.D., L.C.P.C., CEO of Onyx Therapy Group and assistant professor-lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. "Praising the effort allows them to hear more positive words, and to understand that the real joy is in the process of growing and not just the outcome of a situation."
Still, kids can get frustrated when faced with a loss, a bad grade or some other disappointment. When you talk it out with them, "it's best to use analogies that are reflective of their life experiences," Dr. Plummer says. "Examples can include 'climbing steep steps' to get to the highest level; just because a step is tough doesn't mean one should get stuck there or choose to go back the other way. Or you can talk about 'turning into a superhero.' In every superhero movie the character has to change in order to be the best version of themselves. This may include changing clothes, getting better armor, hanging out with more heroes or reflecting on one's actions to do better next time."
This isn't to say that there's no value in getting good grades and winning games. "We need people in this world who are results-focused, so I always encourage parents not to squash that in their children," Dr. Brown says. "Instead, parents should expand their child’s thought process to incorporate the principles of a growth mindset."
Parents can benefit from this attitude, too.
Parents can praise their kids all they want, but it's even better if they can model a growth mindset, too. "Feel free to give your children a few examples of when you were challenged to grow and all the emotions, thoughts and decisions that went into the process," Dr. Plummer says.
And it doesn't always have to be about the present, either. "Tell your child about your mistakes and embarrassing moments when you were younger," Kim Parker, LCSW, author of East Meets West: Parenting From the Best of Both Worlds. "I find that when I share these stories candidly with my teens and preteens, their hearts warm up to me, their minds entertain more possibilities and their spirits are uplifted. They may laugh at me but that's okay because I'm laughing at myself. The pressure is taken off that they have to be perfect or do things perfectly well."
Parker notes that sharing her setbacks benefits her as well as her kids. "I've noticed that when I adopt this mindset, I am more humble, easier to teach and generally more pleasant to be around," she says. "Without the growth mindset, we may get stuck in debilitating anxiety or in negative judgment of others. Both prevent us from moving through the trials and errors that are a major part of life."
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