Developing a Growth Mindset
Years ago I worked with a teenager who was a skinny thing with a fiery temper. He had a mop of reddish-brown hair and a stick figure body. He eventually did some good work in therapy and got a handle on his anger, then I didn’t see him again for several years.
He returned in his early twenties following a breakup with a girlfriend. This time, however, he was nearly unrecognizable.
“a growth mindset emphasizes the need for hard work and persistence.”
For starters, his hair was buzzed down to military specs. More strikingly, though, he looked like he had spent the past few years in the gym nearly 24/7. His biceps were the size of thighs, which, admittedly may not be the best compliment in the world, but my point is that the guy was a beast.
“Look at you!” I said. “You’re a monster!”
“I’ve just put all my anger into working out,” he said. “It’s worked pretty well.”
Through hard work and persistence, he had transformed himself from a scrawny little teenager to a ripped young adult. He had also gone from a hot-headed kid to an even-tempered young man.
I knew another guy who had some wicked ADHD and barely got through high school. He was smart as a whip, but he couldn’t get his work done in time to save his life. To be honest, he didn’t seem like a good candidate for college, but he really wanted to go.
As expected, he bombed out after a year and then had to spend the following year working full-time when his parents pulled the plug on college financing. After working the grind for twelve months, he returned to a local university with a newfound commitment.
“A person with a fixed mindset believes that traits and abilities and performance are just based on the hand he has been dealt.”
To the surprise of nearly everyone, he began to excel. His grades were not just good; they were outstanding. He got into graduate school in a science field and eventually completed a Ph.D. and accepted a faculty position at a nationally-ranked university.
Both of these stories are about some sort of transformation, but more importantly, they are about what happens when you are persistent and work hard. Even if a person has been handed a disadvantage, she can overcome it.
Angry kids can be self-controlled. Inattentive kids can become more focused. Socially awkward people can become excellent conversationalists. You name the setback and it is usually possible to overcome it.
Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset
What predicts someone’s ability to overcome adversity? It seems to have a lot to do with their mindset. How a person thinks about himself predicts how well he will do in most areas of life.
If a kid tells you, “I’m terrible at math. I can’t do it,” then the odds are he will be proven right. However, if that same kid says, “I have a hard time with math. I really have to work hard at it,” then not surprisingly, he is far more likely to do well.
In psychology we call this first way of thinking a “fixed mindset” and we call the second way of thinking a “growth mindset.”
A person with a fixed mindset believes that traits and abilities and performance are just based on the hand he has been dealt. Simply speaking, he might believe he is bad at math, a fast runner, a procrastinator, a smart kid, or any number of traits, but that he is that way because of fixed traits—good or bad—that have been assigned to him. He didn’t work hard to be smart or fast; he just is that way.
In the same way, he is also just bad at math or a procrastinator or hot-tempered, but he really can’t help that. That’s just the way he is! That’s the essence of a fixed mindset: This is how I am. I can’t really change that.
By contrast, a growth mindset emphasizes the need for hard work and persistence. A person with a growth mindset might say, “I really struggle with controlling my temper, so I need to learn some ways to manage it better,” or “I can barely focus on my homework most of the time, so I need to figure out a plan to help me do better in school.”
A growth mindset doesn’t ignore the problem or the struggle, it just keeps the options open for growth and improvement.
Dr. Carol Dweck: Mindset
Dr. Carol Dweck, whose book Mindset is essential reading has spent her career studying the differences between fixed mindset vs growth mindset and her research consistently shows that those with a growth mindset do better in nearly every aspect of life from academic success, relationship health, career accomplishments, and the ability to achieve ambitious goals.
The good news is that a growth mindset can be nurtured and developed, even in adults. There are a number of ways that parents can help their kids develop growth mindsets, even when their kids tend toward fixed ways of thinking about themselves.
Here are five practical things you can do to nurture growth mindsets in your children:
1. Educate Them About Growth Mindsets
There are a few human traits or patterns, like locus of control (a belief in where control lies in your life, either external or internal), attachment style, and moral reasoning that can improve just by exposing a person to the concept. The growth mindset is one of those patterns that can change with awareness.
Describing the differences between fixed mindset vs growth mindsets, reading a short article, watching a video, or using contrasting examples are all ways that a child, teen, or young adult can become aware of this notion and challenge herself to think differently.
2. Praise Hard Work and Persistence
Parents who make comments like, “You are so smart,” or “You are a great singer,” or any “You are so great” statements may be trying to encourage their kid, but may inadvertently be undermining him.
“Developing a growth mindset is not always something that happens quickly, but with hard work and persistence, we can help our kids think differently.”
If you believe you are just so smart, then when you struggle in a class, you are less inclined to work hard to overcome it. The struggle becomes evidence that you might not be so smart or that you are not as capable as you thought you were with this type of thinking.
However, if the message is, “You can do well in school if you really work hard at it,” then it’s implied that hard work and persistence are the keys to success, rather than just being dealt a great hand in life.
3. Tell Success Stories That Emphasize Effort and Dedication
When talking to your kids, tell stories of people that did well in life not because they were so smart, athletic, good-looking, talented, or possessed of some God-given trait that paved the way for their success, but because they put the effort into it and stayed dedicated to their path.
Stories are powerful ways to communicate deeper truths in emotionally powerful ways. Tell good stories of friends, family members, and famous people who worked hard persisted through obstacles, and did well.
4. Emphasize Process as Much as Outcome
Many kids who are highly intelligent can sail through the earlier years of school with little or no effort. They don’t study for a test, but they get an A. They don’t train for their sport much, but they get to start. For these kids, however, they are often ill-equipped for what is likely coming down the road for them in the future.
They will likely experience failure or other deep challenges to their notion of themselves. If you are banking on your talent or inherent abilities, when they aren’t enough, then you are more likely to get discouraged and think of yourself as a failure or a fraud.
However, if you see yourself as someone who is smart, but who really has to work hard to do well, then you emphasize the value of putting in the effort over the natural abilities you might have.
As a parent, you can make statements like, “I really like how you worked so hard on that paper this week,” or “Even if you are a starter, I really want to see you show dedication to your training.”
5. Teach How Failures Are Opportunities for Growth, Not Moments of Shame
For a kid with a fixed mindset, a failure only exposes how lacking or inadequate they really are. For those with growth mindsets, failures are opportunities to solve problems or get better in some way. In parenting your child, send this message clearly: Everyone makes mistakes, but each time we make them, they are chances for us to learn about ourselves and get better.
Developing a growth mindset is not always something that happens quickly, but with hard work and persistence, we can help our kids think differently in ways that will help them be more resilient, reach their goals, have satisfying relationships, and live happier healthier lives.