Families, communities, and nations are stronger when parents foster growth mindset instead of fixed mindset. If this is the first time that you have heard these terms, you are far from being alone. Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. is a world-renowned psychologist at Stanford University, and she discovered the power of mindset after doing decades of research. She is the author of a book titled Mindset – The New Psychology of Success and has an updated edition on the market. The ideas and quotes in this post are from her book.
Mindset is what a person believes about themselves, and it greatly influences personality and every part of life. Studying about mindset helps in understanding successful and unsuccessful people as well as oneself, one’ spouse, children, and friends.
Fixed mindset is believing that you have all the intelligence, all the skills, and all the abilities that you will ever have. People with fixed mindsets are always trying to prove themselves but unwilling to risk looking like a failure.
Growth mindset “is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience” (Mindset, 7). This mindset says that a person’s potential is unknown and unknowable and therefore should not be limited.
To me, this idea about mindset is much the same as attitude. We speak of people having a positive attitude or a negative attitude. A positive attitude – or growth mindset -- is shown in lots of common sayings, such as “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” and “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” or “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” People with negative attitudes or fixed mindsets would not agree with the above statements because they are not willing to risk failure.
Mindset may be a little different than attitude because mindset controls our willingness to risk failure and work to overcome obstacles.
… It’s not just that some people happen to recognize the value of challenging themselves and the importance of effort. Our research has shown that this comes directly from the growth mindset. When we teach people the growth mindset, with its focus on development, these ideas about challenge and effort follow. Similarly, it’s not just that some people happen to dislike challenge and effort. When we (temporarily) put people in a fixed mindset, with its focus on permanent traits, they quickly fear challenge and devalue effort (Mindset, p. 10).
The interesting thing to me about this mindset idea is that we can put ourselves into a fixed mindset or into a growth mindset by our thoughts or the words that we say to others. We can choose which mindset that we want because mindsets “are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind” (Mindset, p. 16). Mindset changes how we approach life. “People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it. The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch” (Mindset, p. 21).
I had an experience about five years ago when I decided to go to college. I took one look at the list of assignments that were required the first week, and I was nearly in tears. I just knew that there was no way that I could do all of them in one week. Then a thought came into my mind, “Focus on one assignment at a time, and you can do it.” That simple thought changed my mindset, and I went to work. I follow the same counsel when I began each new semester and question my ability to do the work. Do one at a time.
The information about mindset is important for individuals to know, but it is essential for parents, teachers, and coaches to understand. Every single word that we say and every action that we take sends a message to other people, and these messages affect mindset. Even words of praise can put someone into a fixed mindset. “Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation, and it harms their performance” (Mindset, p. 178). The same is true about praising talent. It is mind-boggling to me that praising someone can be wrong, but I can see how can be.
Praising intelligence or talent gives a temporary boost, but it does not help a person when they hit a snag. Why? “If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s a fixed mindset” (Mindset, p. 178).
Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence – like a gift – by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, seek new strategies, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence (Mindset, pp. 179-180).
Instead of praising intelligence or talent, parents can praise “the growth-oriented process – what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies. And we can ask them about their work in a way that recognizes and shows interest in their efforts and choices” (Mindset, p. 180). This can be difficult when what we really want to say is, “You are brilliant” or “You have such great talent!”
When parents, teachers, or coaches put the emphasis on intelligence, talent, or skills, children and youth will question if the love and admiration is about them or about the intelligence, talent, or skill. Will my parents still be proud of me if I do not get into Harvard? Will they still love me if I cannot do the work and flunk out? Will they still love me if I mess up in my next game, meet, or recital?
To the star soccer or hockey player, parents can praise the passing or teamwork rather than the number of goals. To the student who aced a test, parents can praise the hard work and hours of study that went into the accomplishment rather than saying, “You are brilliant” or even worse, “I love you because you are so brilliant!” What if the student works hard and studies for long hours but still does not do well? The parent praises the hard work and effort and then offers to help the student discover what they do not understand. What if the gymnast does not work hard enough to earn the ribbon that she desires? The parent must be honest and tell her that the other gymnasts worked harder and longer and deserved to win -- and then offer to help the gymnast analyze what she needs to do differently.
Children, teens, and adults are much happier when they develop a love for challenges and learning new things. Parents, teachers, and coaches will see more progress when they face the challenge of sending messages that inspire growth. Families, communities, and nations are stronger when children, youth, and adults develop “can do” attitudes and growth mindset.
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