My kids, the growth mindset and me

A few times a year, my kids have a day off the timetable at school and learn some sort of lifeskill. I’ve often heard them say ‘We learned about the growth mindset’ and I’ve nodded, but never actually known what the growth mindset is. I learned recently. And I was shocked. It made me question my parenting and the way I treat my kids.

The growth mindset feeds into a lot of elements of education. It colours the way the teachers talk to kids and helps children become more resilient learners. Growth mindset goes back to some research conducted in 1998 by psychologists Mueller and Dweck. They set a group of children an achievable problem to solve and at the end told them all they’d achieved 80%. They then praised half of their children for their intelligence and half for their effort.

The children they praised for the intelligence were likely to choose future tasks they thought would make them look smart. The children praised for effort chose tasks that would help them learn new things. The children who were praised for their intelligence said they enjoyed the tests less, were less likely to persist and performed worse in future tests compared to the children who had been praised for their effort.

The majority of children (86%) praised for their intelligence asked how their peers had got on with the same task, compared to 23% who had been praised for their effort. Nearly four in 10 children who had been praised for their intelligence lied about what they had achieved, compared to 13% of the children praised for effort.

This started to ring alarm bells with me on the way I parent my children. One of my children in particular.

My younger son is highly intelligent. I have known this since he was 18 months old, from the way he put sentences together and the amount of thought that went into them. I knew at that age he would end up at his highly selective grammar school. Most people thought I was mad when I told them he would go to that school. But anyone who knew him well, particularly his nursery teachers, knew exactly where I was coming from. He really was, and is, a very clever boy. And I’ve always praised him for it. I am in awe of his intelligence.

My son wants to be a psychiatrist. We always hoped he’d have a medical career (although he’s not keen on blood and will have to undergo full medical training). Had he chosen that career path because it looks ‘smart’?

My son doesn’t have a growth mindset. He has a fixed mindset. Children with a growth mindset are those who have been praised for their effort. For them, failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. They know they can learn anything they want to – and challenges help them with that. Children believe it is their effort and attitude that determine their abilities. They are inspired by the success of others and like to try new things.

Children with a fixed mindset believe they are either good at something or they’re not. They can either do it or they can’t, see failure as the limit of their abilities and give up when they’re frustrated. They don’t like feedback and criticism and see it as a personal attack. Children with a fixed mindset like to stick with what they know.

This is my son. Yes, he’s good at many things. But the things he isn’t good at, or is less good at, he won’t try. He is scared to step outside his box. My son has to be coaxed every step of the way to do even the smallest thing outside his comfort zone. He still hasn’t done the presentation for his Bronze D of E expedition (six months ago) because he isn’t 100% certain of what he needs to do and is therefore sure it won’t be good enough.

Praising your child for what they’re good at seems natural. But have I damaged my son by praising him for his intelligence?

My daughter, on the other hand, has a growth mindset. She started at her grammar school knowing that she had come lower in the entrance exam than a lot of girls. She was worried she would be at the bottom of the class. But she is close to the  top of the class in many subjects because she works hard, pushes herself and doesn’t let anything stand in her way.

When my daughter was younger, we didn’t actually realise how bright she was. She was living in her brother’s shadow, was slow to start speaking and very shy (both of these things were as a result of her being unable to see properly). She was probably in year 1 or 2 before we realised that she was at the top of the class. We’d never praised her for intelligence, we have praised her for her many other fantastic qualities and we seem to have created a child who won’t let anything hold her back.

Interestingly, I wrote the other day about perfectionism and the potential for it to be damaging. You may think that a perfectionist would have a fixed mindset, but my daughter is definitely a perfectionist and definitely has a growth mindset. Children are complex characters and no two children are the same or learn in the same way.

Have I damaged my son by giving him a fixed mindset? Or am I worrying too much about nothing? Have your children got growth mindsets or fixed mindsets?

Growth mindset, Fixed mindset, Teenager, Son, My kids the growth mindset and me

Author: Sarah Mummy

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  1. I haven’t heard of the growth mindset before although I have heard lots about encouraging kids for what they do rather than always what they achieve. I think it’s very hard not to praise intelligence and achievement because that’s easy to measure and it’s pretty automatic. That’s what all of us what to do and be. The best at what we do.

    It’s definitely easier when your child isn’t top of the class and has to work at things.

    I was top set for everything at school and found school easy, I was a good student but wasn’t really pushed by school (joys of ckmprehensives) and did well for scores in those days but could have done better. My brother is naturally bright but lazy and coasted. We were both praised for being intelligent, and for doing well, and encouraged to be the best. We were both naturally competitive too. I enjoy learning, my brother likes to learn what he wants to learn and when. N isn’t obviously super intelligent and has to be pushed at everything school work. He surprised everyone including the teacher with his year 2 SATs results which were up with the top of the class. He is also a bit of a perfectionist in that he doesn’t like to get things wrong. Because I know he has to be pushed and he has a 7yo’s belief that he’s the best at everything when he’s really no, I don’t encourage the learning and fun and trying his best. But if he was more motivated and was easily seen to be more intelligent in everything I think I would naturally praise that instead.

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    • Thanks very much. It’s definitely instinctive to praise kids for doing well in things. You and your brother sound a lot like me and my brother, expect I was never a competitive child. I’ve learned to be more competitive from my husband, who has passed the trait on to my kids!
      It sounds like N is doing very well. My eldest is the least academic of my kids, but he always believed he was the best at everything too. It’s a nice way for young kids to be!

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  2. This has really made me think, I read it first thing this morning and have been thinking about it all day. I definitely praise my children for doing well rather than trying hard and I’ve got one who is a natural trier and does her best at absolutely everything all the time and one who has inherited my lazy streak. For her, and for me, life is quite easy. There’s no incentive to try harder because we can generally do things. This also means though that we are less inclined to bother trying things we may not naturally be good at, and for me it was absolutely linked with vast underachievement in life in general. That said, we’re both really laid back and generally very happy with our lot, so that’s definitely not a bad thing. But I’m going to put a lot more effort into praising the effort from now on.

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    • I’m very pleased to have got you thinking all day! Your kids sound ace. And I like your point about being happy with your lot. That’s pretty much me too. I had a sales phone call a few weeks ago when someone was basically telling me my business was crap because it didn’t appear high on google and I was saying to him that I’m not bothered! I have the right amount of work for me to work around my kids, I don’t need to be working flat out all the time. (It’s not a very effective sales strategy to tell someone their business is crap!) x

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  3. Sarah,

    There’s a lot to be said in favour of the growth mindset. We can learn, and do, many things that don’t necessarily come naturally to us. That applies to adults as well as to children. But… ultimately, we all have our limits. There’s nothing to be gained by banging your head against a brick wall.

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    • So very true! Although with his natural abilities, I know my son could turn his hand to anything and be good at it. I spent many years as an adult trying to dance, but I made no progress and remained crap!

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  4. They’re big on growth mindsets at my kids’ school, and I read the book (Mindset: the new psychology of success, by Carol Dweck) a couple of years ago. I hugely recommend it: it has definitely subtly altered the way we parent our two – one of whom definitely tends to fixed mindset perfectionism.

    Possibly more interestingly, it has changed the way *I* learn and grow. You know I fell into that bright kid box where everything came easily. I’m now deliberately moving away from valuing intelligent perfectionism and allowing myself to be more experimental and open to failure. To be honest, it has transformed the way I show up at work and I’m doing things I couldn’t have accessed with my earlier mindset.

    So (and how meta is this?!) it’s never too late to develop a growth mindset 😉

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    • That’s very interesting! It sounds like your kids’ school is further down the line with it than my kids’ schools.
      I think I’ve got a fairly fixed mindset too – I used to hate change at work, for example. I’m impressed that you have changed your own mindset. It sounds like I could benefit from taking a look at the book myself.

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  5. That is really interesting, I have heard of growth mindset but didn’t really know what it was until today, so thank you for enlightening me. I don’t think you have damaged your son because ultimately you have given him a loving a supportive upbringing and that is more important than anything. I do thing that to a certain extent mindset does come from their personalities too. I’m not sure if I praise for intelligence but I do always encourage mine to try their best and that the outcome doesn’t matter as long as they tried but I will certainly think about my comments from now on and read a bit more about this as it is fascinating.

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    • Thank you! I appreciate you saying I haven’t damaged my son because I really felt like I’d failed him! With all of my kids I tell them that I want them to do the best that they can do. They are all different and have different strengths and a great achievement for one of them might not be considered an achievement for on of the others.

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  6. I haven’t ever thought about it like this before.

    I’ve always felt like I’ve got a lot to prove; I was 19 when my son was born, a single mum and all the other mum’s in his class were in their 30’s and 40’s. I always felt they looked down on me and that they thought my son wouldn’t amount to anything because of the start in life I’ve given him. So I’ve always pushed him harder and always been more focued on his results. With my daughters, I’m the same age as the other Mum’s and married to their father, I don’t feel that pressure anymore – so I’m not passing it down to the girls.

    I really need to think more about how I talk about his school work with him. Thank you

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    • I can totally understand why you would have done that. It’s hard to feel judged and you want to prove yourself and prove that your son is every bit as good as the other kids (which of course he is). It’s interesting how being older and married has changed the way you parent.

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  7. Fascinating stuff. Me eldest sounds like your son and sadly I think she’s a perfectionist with a fixed mindset – she’s very all or nothing/black and white. Unless she’s going to be excellent at it, she won’t even try. Didn’t you tell me that your son has chosen art that he’s not brilliant at but is focusing really hard on? Don’t get hung up on wondering if youve damaged your kids. Anyone with an exceptionally intelligent child would have done the same. xx

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    • Thanks very much, that is very reassuring to hear! My son is the same with so many things. He ‘hates’ cricket, just because he’s not brilliant at it.
      You’re right about the art. Compared to ‘normal’ kids ie kids not at his school, he is good, but compared to super-talented kids, he has to work a bit harder. He will probably get a 6, or hopefully a 7, in art. x

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  8. This is really interesting. I am wondering how A will grow up as I think I’ve definitely parented her differently than the boys. L I have been a bit like your oldest as he’s a maths genius. This makes for an interesting read xx

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    • That will be interesting to see. With my kids, I guess I’ve focused my parenting on what they need. They are all different, so I’ve parented them all slightly differently. But on the whole there would be more similarities than differences. X

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  9. Our school was big on growth mindset. Part of the reason I chose it for them. They were very good at getting the parents in and giving us the tools to support the children at home. It seemed as if every sentence ended in the word “yet”, to the extent that the children would groan whenever it was mentioned. I’ve noticed, with the change of headmaster, growth mindset seems to have dropped, although I did ask one teacher and she said it was used behind the scenes more. I would say my eldest is very like your son. I do think that the growth mindset has helped her. She’s experienced 3 different approaches and it has definitely suited her the best. It’s the nudge that she needs to push herself out of her comfort zone.

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    • That’s really interesting. I’m glad it has helped your daughter. I suspect it is used more behind the scenes at my kids’ schools, as it is the first time I’ve had the subject introduced to me as a parent. I wish I’d known about it sooner.

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  10. This is really interesting Sarah and I felt as I was reading it that your scenario with your son and daughter mirrors my own. I don’t think you need worry about your words and the impact on your son he sounds as if he is sorted if somewhat of a procrastinator – like all boys!!! It seems that the youngest always lives in the shadow of the eldest in the family too. My daughter has always considered herself not as clever as her brother because she didn’t get in to as good a school as he did but actually like your daughter she is really flourishing where she is. Now that she is in her GCSE year she constantly keeps asking what I will say if she doesn’t achieve as high grades as her brother and does not seem to believe that it is not a case of compare and contrast but a recognition of their individual strengths. I always encourage my teens to do the best for themselves. Yes I want them to do well but my emphasis has always been on them putting in the effort to achieve their potential for them and that if they don’t the only person they will short change is themselves. Maybe a bit harsh but it gives them food for thought.

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    • Yes to all of this! I always say to all of my kids that I want them to do the best that they can do themselves and achieve their own full potential – and if they don’t do that, they will be the ones who are disappointed. My daughter is only in year 8, but I suspect she will get results as good as her very clever brother. Our family is a bit of a strange one as my eldest (in year 13) also lives in the shadow of his younger brother.

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