Do you want your child to do well in life? Do you want them to develop as a person, to be honest, to build on their strengths and work on their weaknesses? Of course you do: being a parent means wanting the best for your child. You can’t prevent every bad thing that might happen to them. That reality is one of the difficult parts of being a parent. You can make a positive difference by encouraging them to have a growth mindset.
What is a growth mindset? It’s the opposite of a fixed mindset. These concepts, created by the psychologist Carol Dweck, are described in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” To compare, a fixed mindset assumes that a person has natural talents and weaknesses and that these are determined for life. This means your abilities are fixed.
A growth mindset believes a person can develop skills and work to overcome weaknesses. Your abilities grow with learning and practice. Believing that your skills will grow with practice sounds obvious. Yet, many people still have a fixed mindset and this can encourage a fixed mindset in their children.
Why is this a problem? People with a fixed mindset can succeed in life, yet they tend to have unhelpful habits and beliefs. Having a fixed mindset means that they link failure or success to their personality. So if your child has a fixed mindset, they believe that the result of a test at school is a description of them as a person. If they fail in science, they’re likely to say that they’re “not a science person.” If their painting doesn’t work out, they’ll decide they’re not artistic. For the child, doing poorly at something they know is important to you can result in them trying to hide what happened. This is the reaction used to avoid talking to you or to lie. They see their failings as a fixed part of their personality. If they want people to like them, they’ll deny or minimize any problems.
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Do you want your child to see a setback as a challenge, as an incentive to learn something new or try something different? Is your goal to have them be honest with you about their worries and fears and to come to you with their problems? You want to encourage a growth mindset.
The easiest way to do this is to avoid linking their achievements with their character. When your toddler stacks some building blocks, don’t say, “You’re so clever,” say, “That’s really good.” When your child comes home from daycare and shows you a painting made that day, tell them it is beautiful. Do not label your child as artistic. Encourage your child to play and create from their imagination. When they get a high score on a school test, let them know that it’s a great achievement, not that they’re a great person. Does this sound like you’re undermining their self-confidence? Not at all. As they get older, they’re going to be in an environment where they don’t stand out. If doing well at school means they’re talented, what will it mean when they go to college and perform below average? Or when they start a new job and make mistakes? The link between achievements and character can lead to assumptions of failure later in life.
You wouldn’t tell your child they’re a failure when they have a problem. You might say, “You’ve got this! I believe in you! You can do it next time!” That’s very supportive, but it’s not helping them to have a growth mindset. If an outcome is not as expected, you need to ask questions, in a supportive way. Ones like “what have you learned” or “what could you try different” will lead to more productive discussion. Your support and love should always be there, no matter what. Teach them that a setback is a learning opportunity, not a description of their abilities. If you are unsure of the steps to take, family counseling might be a great resource for you to explore.
If you find that your child is hiding poor test results or lying about things they failed at, talk to them. Set aside a time to explain that you’re not angry with them – everyone fails sometimes. Remind them doing poorly at a task doesn’t define who they are as a person. A 2007 study by Society for Research in Child Development shared here (srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.00995.x) found teaching teenagers about the concept of a growth mindset helped them improve test scores. If your child has got into a fixed mindset, tell them about ways you learned from mistakes. Discuss the ways you were able to develop because of setbacks. Hearing that other people can grow and learn can help them leave their fixed mindset behind. If your child is having specific issues with school, you might look at talking with the school counselor first to identify areas to work on.
If you help your child develop a growth mindset, they’re more likely to learn from their mistakes. They will also be open about problems and admit their faults. Don’t link their achievements with their character. It feels good to tell them that they’re a genius, however, what happens if they don’t do as well at something new? A child’s self-image should not be based on their accomplishments and successes only. Encourage questioning and problem-solving, and support them as they look for help. If you feel your child would benefit from talking to a professional, seek counseling for them. If your child shows the signs of a fixed mindset, don’t despair. There’s evidence that learning about a growth mindset can help them to change..
If you need assistance with your child, the counselors at Pathways Counseling Services in Scottsdale are here to work with you and your partner. Our therapists are trained to help children be healthier and happier. We encourage you to schedule an appointment online, contact us, or call our office at 480-235-1682. We offer a free 15-minute phone consultation.