Credit: Bill Murphy Jr. and Inc.com.
- Praising kids merely for their innate abilities, such as their intelligence, actually makes it less likely that they’ll grow up to enjoy learning and to excel.
- Praising kids instead for the strategies and processes they develop to solve problems–even when they don’t fully succeed–makes them more likely to try harder and ultimately achieve.
- And–perhaps the kicker–the effects of these praise strategies can be quantified even when we’re talking about children as young as 1 to 3 years of age.
How does it all work? We’ll talk below about two studies involving school-age children, both led by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. First, however, let’s examine the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, which underlies the whole thing.
Fixed vs. growth mindset
When it comes to beliefs about human achievement, a fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence, for example, is almost entirely innate. Either you’re born with great smarts and the ability to achieve, or you’re not.
A growth mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that achievement (again, for our purposes in the intellectual realm) is much more variable, and that intelligence and problem-solving abilities can be developed over time.
“Praise your child explicitly for how capable they are of learning rather than telling them how smart they are.”
Back to Dweck’s research. A few years ago, she and her team took 373 middle school students, and identified those who exhibited fixed mindsets and those who exhibited growth mindsets.
Dweck said she has identified several key differences between the two types of students.
Students with a fixed mindset had one goal in mind: “Look smart at all times and at all costs.” That meant they worked to avoid any task that might show they weren’t as smart as they thought they were.
Students with a growth mindset, on the other hand, didn’t care if their mistakes were revealed to their peers; they saw this as inevitable and nothing to be ashamed of, because their goal was to “learn at all times and at all costs.”
2. Attitudes toward effort and failure
Students with a fixed mindset viewed effort and failure as bad things, because the mere fact that someone worked hard or came up short demonstrated (to them) that the person didn’t have innate ability.
Growth-mindset students, on the other hand, believed that effort was what was required to unlock ability.
Dweck says the notion that effort is a bad thing “is one of the worst beliefs that anyone can have.”
3. Boredom and difficulty
Students who demonstrated a fixed mindset were far more likely to complain of being bored in school, Dweck found. They seemed to get into a cycle in which they used boredom as a cover to suggest why they wouldn’t try things that they found difficult; in the process they actually became bored.
Growth-mindset students, on the other hand, looked at schoolwork as a series of challenges and puzzles to figure out. They were also less likely to complain that a teacher, or a course, or another external factor, was responsible if they had difficulty.
The babies and a few examples
So, how early is too early to start praising strategies and processes over innate ability? Very early, according to Dweck. In fact, her research shows that the way mothers praise babies as young as 1 to 3 years in age can predict the child’s “mindset and desire for challenge five years later.”
(Dweck says that after conducting her research, she’s been known to interrupt moms she’s seen in airports telling their babies that they’re geniuses.)
So what should you do instead? Here are a couple of ideas. Instead of praising a child for solving a puzzle or accomplishing an easy goal, Dweck suggests saying something like, “I’m sorry I wasted your time. Let’s do something hard–something you can learn from.”
Or, instead of asking your kids at dinner how school was today, go around the table and ask everyone to share a story of how they struggled with something. (You have to share, too!)
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