JACKSON HOLE NEWS AND GUIDE:
Imagine the student whose teacher suggests she move to the honors class, the tennis player who is asked to play on the more competitive team or the musical talent who is invited to play on a big stage.
Often we think, what an amazing learning opportunity this will be for the child or teen to be challenged and develop their abilities. While some kids may agree and rise to meet the challenges (albeit with an appropriate level of nerves) and meet the task head on, others may be scared, shrink or not even try. It can be too scary to try, perhaps fail, and have it be found out that they actually aren’t as good as everyone says they are, as good as they thought they were.
These kids believe that their ability is who they are. I am either good at this or I’m not. I’m a winner or a failure. It’s not, “Wow, that was hard. It may have been a setback (or an exciting challenge). Let’s go back and try again.”
Some respond to failure, difficulty or challenge as an affront to themselves. I’m not good. I can’t do it. I give up. I don’t want to try. Others respond with curiosity, perseverance and tenacity. I love a challenge. What can I learn from this? What can I do differently next time? And of course there are some gray areas in between.
Parents have come to me saddened by their child’s quickness to quit, their lack of desire to try something new, challenging or slightly out of their comfort zone, or even giving up on something they used to love. Where does this apparent lack of confidence come from?
Psychologist and professor Carol Dweck in her seminal work on fixed and growth mindsets might lead us to some answers.
Those with a fixed mindset tend to believe that one’s abilities are innate character traits that people are born with, and no amount of effort will change this. The thought is that if I only have a fixed amount of intelligence, talent or ability then I better prove that those abilities are high because there is nothing I can do to make them better. Further, there is a desire to avoid failure at all costs, lest it be found out that I am not smart, talented, athletic or good.
Where does a fixed mindset come from? Often from too much generalized praise: “Good job!” “You’re so smart.” “You’re an amazing athlete.” Kids who are told this over and over again can come to believe that this is who they are. The child or teen can feel so much pressure to live up to this idea of “who” they are that they are afraid to try more challenging activities. What if they fail or it’s found out they actually don’t have those abilities?
Sometimes being born with these natural abilities, such as a propensity toward academics, an ease with music or a naturally athletic body, can be more of a curse than an advantage. If I am born this way, I will always be this way. My ability is fixed. And if it is fixed, or “carved in stone” as Dweck says in her book “Mindset,” challenges can become scary: “You are either smart or you aren’t and failure means you aren’t.”
Those with a growth mindset have a more open mind about their abilities. They believe talent can be cultivated by effort, hard work and practice. They see failure as a learning opportunity, which gives them room to grow.
Where does a growth mindset come from? It comes from specific praise, and kids being praised for their effort: “You worked really hard at that.” “You really worked at your passing today.” “I noticed how you stuck with that hard math problem until you figured it out.” Dweck’s studies show that children who are praised for their effort choose more challenging tests and do better on subsequent tests. Those who are told they are smart choose tests that are easier in order to confirm their intellect, and their performance does not improve.
When kids are told they are smart or talented or athletic they get the message “look good, don’t make mistakes,” and so they shy away from challenges or anything that might make them look bad. As Dweck says, the name of the game becomes “arrange successes and avoid failure at all costs.”
What is important as parents is that we don’t brush over or try to quickly ameliorate failure. Often we are afraid to talk about failure for fear that our kids will feel bad. Yet if we don’t talk about what went wrong, how can we learn from it?
Dweck believes that rather than giving up, the way to bounce back from failure is to work hard and try again. It’s the idea of persistence, a trait, as authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman write in their book “Nurture Shock,” that allows people to rebound and sustain motivation even if the gratification, or reward, is delayed.
Bronson and Merryman go on to explain that there is an actual message in the brain that is sent when there is a lack of immediate reward. It says, “Don’t stop trying, there is dopamine on the horizon.” But the release of too much dopamine, the feel-good chemical our brain emits when we get a reward, can backfire: “[A] person who grows up getting too frequent rewards [or blanket praise] will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.” You can see why too much praise can lead to a lack of motivation.
And, as Dweck notes, when we praise ability we take the outcome out of children and teens’ control. When we emphasize effort, kids can see they can actually play a role. It gives them a sense of mastery and agency.
It’s hard to enjoy an activity when your entire focus is on looking smart, athletic or talented. And it’s certainly hard to put yourself out there in public and even try. If our kids have interest or passion in something — a love of learning, sport or the arts — we hope to see them follow their passions. Not because we want to see the outcomes, but because it brings them a sense of joy, accomplishment or pride. What kids need is a strategy for handling failure and a belief that they can control their outcomes. As Dweck says, “the view that you adapt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.”
Stay tuned this school year as I apply these ideas more specifically to homework, motivation, sports and more.
Want to learn more on mindsets and the inverse power of praise? Go to my resource page at GGFWyo.com and scroll down to the section on mindsets.
Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is excited to explore the world of raising children with you!