Especially for Parents: Supporting a Growth Mindset

“A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

Dr. Robert Cloninger, Center for Well-Being

Happily, it is now the season for pulling out bikes and scooters; heading to the park, field, or playground to play; and creating masterpieces with sidewalk chalk. Last night our girls, ages 6 and 4, whizzed up and down the driveway on their scooters, enjoying the warm air and sunshine. At one point I exclaimed to our younger daughter, “You are so fast!” This was immediately followed by a question from our older daughter, “Mommy, am I doing a good job too?” “Yes!” I replied, “You are doing great!”

In spite of what I have learned time and again about the negative consequences for children of too much praise, it is a hard habit to break. And yet as I think about the spring and summer months and the opportunities they afford our girls to learn and develop new skills, I am reminded of the importance of fostering a growth mindset–and that too much praise can be an obstacle to this.

Psychologist Carol Dweck is a leading researcher on the concept of fixed versus growth mindsets. While a fixed mindset assumes that you can’t materially change your capabilities, intelligence, or character, a growth mindset thrives on challenge and embraces new opportunities to learn and expand a base of knowledge. People with a growth mindset are intrinsically motivated to learn.

Dweck has found that children develop their mindsets—their beliefs about themselves and their abilities—very early in life. She has discovered that praising children can foster a fixed mindset as children become focused on proving themselves for the purpose of receiving praise, versus engaging in the learning process for the purpose of obtaining knowledge.

It is instinctive for most parents to praise their children, so one way praise can be used more effectively is to praise a child’s effort rather than his or her ability. As Dweck notes from her research,

“…ability praise pushed students right into the fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it, too: When we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent.

In contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted the challenging new task that they could learn from.”

Parents can also substitute praise with an observation or an open-ended question, which have the benefits of increasing vocabulary and critical thinking skills.

Next time I’m tempted to say, “Good job!” as our daughter crosses the monkey bars, I think I will try an observation such as, “You used your arm muscles to get all the way across that time!” Or maybe I’ll try a question: “Why do you think they are called monkey bars?”

Check out the Parent Blog for Carol Dweck’s TED Talk.

Additional articles of interest on this topic:

The Negative Power of Praise: Why You Should Stop Saying “Good Job” to Your Children

Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives

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