By Eric Churchill, Ph.D., IVA Board Chairman
Have you ever told your child he is smart? When your daughter could recognize words, at a seemingly early age, did you call her gifted? Or how about when your son showed an early musical aptitude, did you say he was a natural? I did all of these things. And why not? Our kids are our pride and joy. But have you ever thought that this might be doing more damage than good? Perhaps we do our kids a disadvantage by telling them they are talented, gifted and smart. When we lavish on this type of praise at an early age, we might be giving kids the message that they have permanent traits and these are what we value!
This is what Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, calls fostering a fixed mindset. By praising qualities like intelligence, skill and ability we tell our children this is how they are defined and, perhaps, this is how they are expected to behave. It results in children feeling the need to prove themselves over and over again and results in our kids shying away from taking intellectual risks.
What does that look like? Imagine a child whose parents continually focus on how smart and talented he is. As the student moves through the echelons of education, he only takes on challenges that he knows he can complete successfully since failure would challenge his parents’ belief about who he is. As he moves into college, where the work becomes more challenging, he begins to struggle since he doesn’t have the skills to work through challenging intellectual tasks.
So what’s the alternative? According to Dweck, we serve our kids well by focusing on the process, which includes strategies, efforts and choices. This is an example of a growth mindset, which focuses on things children can change with hard work. It puts them in control of the outcomes and they are able to define, rather than being defined by, what people say about them. When they know their intellectual virtues can change over time, it develops a love for learning. So, what does this look like? Imagine one day (maybe not in Mrs. Noble’s 6th grade science class) your student comes home with an A+++ on an applied physics exam. Rather than telling her how talented, smart and gifted she is you focus on the process. You praise her by saying things like: “Wow, I saw how hard you studied for this exam, “Your hard work really paid off,” or, “You really took a risk taking such a hard class and then stretched yourself even further by studying as hard as you did for this exam, I am so proud of who you are becoming as a student.”
I am happy to report that our students at IVA are getting this! They know education is not just about regurgitating information, but rather, it is about digging deeper (Intellectual Thoroughness), taking risks (Intellectual Courage) and embracing struggles (Intellectual Tenacity). How do I know this? In my advisory, I asked my students if they thought a test could predict how smart they will become. A fixed mindset student would say yes, tests definitely inform others of how smart I am and will become. A growth mindset student looks at tests as just another way to learn and grow. Questions they got wrong provide a starting point for learning new things. Here are a couple of responses from my advisees. “You can do really bad on a test, but still be a terrific student.” “You can’t measure how smart someone will be in the future, because people can grow in different ways.” Wow! These kids get it! They have the language of a growth mindset.
So, what are some things you can do to speak the growth mindset language? Start by listening to the messages you are sending to your kids. Rather than praising their intellect or talent (fixed mindset), begin praising the process they used (growth mindset). When they do poorly, help them observe what went wrong, what they can learn from it and how they can improve. Words like process, stretching, effort, develop, adaptable, and becoming are all growth mindset words you can use. Let them know that through struggle they grow. Alternatively, you can learn from your children, because, based on what I have seen in my advisory, our IVA kids get it!