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?