When I became a parent for the first time five years ago my realization was that I am responsible for shaping a human being’s life. It was both exciting and scary to know that my actions and behavior determined what kind of person this human being will grow up to be. Ever since I decided to look for ways to grow and develop myself as a parent. I eventually stumbled upon this book called Mindset by Carol Dweck which opened a whole new world of developmental psychology to me.
Carol Dweck is one of the world's leading researchers in the fields of personality, social psychology, and developmental psychology. With her extensive research on children’s motivation and development, she challenged the common belief that intelligent people are born smart. My biggest takeaway from Mindset (that we covered in this post) was that praising children for their smarts lessens their motivation and hinders their performance. She recommends focusing on children’s effort and behavior as a better way of communicating values instead of fixating on their innate traits.
To me as a parent, this discovery was empowering. We all want our children to succeed in life, but most of the times we actually don’t know what we’re doing and end up sabotaging their growth without even realizing it. That’s exactly what we do when we praise their intelligence with statements like “you’re so smart” or “you're talented”. This type of praise actually encourages children to intentionally avoid challenges because they will not want to make a mistake and ruin their reputation as “smart”.
Carol Dweck talks about two different views that determine children’s success in coping with challenges and obstacles. She calls these views Fixed and Growth Mindsets. To understand fixed mindset try to think of it as the psychological immune system that’s trying to protect your ego by telling you to avoid the obstacle as it can make you look bad. The growth mindset, on the other hand, is not an internal quality that is fed by easy successes and diminished by failures. As Carol Dweck describes it, the growth mindset is a positive way of experiencing yourself when you’re fully engaged and are using your abilities to the utmost in the pursuit of something you value.
The growth mindset approach has shown incredible results when adopted by parents and teachers as part of Carol Dweck’s research. She recommends this radical approach for engaging with children by praising effort instead of talent, teaching kids to see challenges as learning opportunities rather than threats, and emphasizing how abilities can be transformed. If you are constantly looking for ways to grow and improve yourself to become better in communicating with your children, here are a few usable tips and ideas that you can start implementing today.
Brain plasticity is the human superpower
Talk to your kids about how the brain is like a muscle - when you keep using it, it transforms itself to become bigger and stronger. The kids (adults too) need to understand how their body and mind work to be able to use them effectively. When explaining the concept, try using examples of something that your little ones are already familiar with. For example, our 5-year-old practices Jiu-Jitsu and knows that repeating the same movement many times makes his muscles grow stronger and get used to that movement. So, we say to him “when you focus and think about something really hard, your brain gets its training and becomes bigger and stronger to be able to solve that kind of task next time”. Keep reminding this to your kids regularly to instill the concept of brain plasticity in them.
“Yet” - the word of encouragement
The word “yet” should be your best friend for encouragement. If your child encounters difficult tasks and is ready to give up, saying “I’m not good at this” or “I can not do it”, counter with “yet”. This puts them back onto a learning trajectory. Remind them that the brain is like a muscle, and it takes the brain many tries to learn the task. You can say something like “You didn’t let your brain have enough time to memorize the task yet”.
Another thing is to constantly talk about struggle. In our society, struggle is usually considered as a negative thing. We need to start painting it in a positive light to make it the norm. One way we can do that is by making it a daily ritual to talk about struggles that we had that day and tell our kids how that benefitted us or what useful thing we got out from them. When we do that in our home, we make sure to speak with positivity and excitement when talking about our struggles. We discuss mistakes with children and make sure that they understand that mistakes are not a terrible thing. The message we want to communicate to children is that if we’re not struggling, we’re not growing or getting better.
Focus on effort over intelligence
Carol Dweck says that self-esteem is not something we can give to children by telling them about their high intelligence. It is something we equip them to get for themselves by teaching them to VALUE LEARNING over the APPEARANCE OF SMARTNESS. One simple way to do that is to stop telling children they’re so smart and start praising their hard work, strategies, focus, persistence, and the process. These are the types of praise that foster a growth mindset and make kids love challenges and react well to setbacks. For example, our 5-year-old doesn’t give up easily anymore when he can’t spell a word and keeps trying until he gets it right. The only subtle change we made was how we praised: “I was impressed that you never gave up and kept trying” instead of “wow, that’s impressive”. Now he even gets frustrated when we try to help him because he wants to actually test his own abilities instead of just showing off what he can do.
Be specific with your praise
Carol Dweck’s research found that to be effective, praise has to be specific. This might take some getting used to, but it’s doable. What worked for us can work for anyone. Just like in the example above, we tried to find a specific action to praise that would help our kids see strategies they could apply the next time. The effectiveness of this type of praise was staggering. To improve our 5-year-old's ability to concentrate better, for instance, we praised him for practicing his writing for five minutes without asking for a break instead of telling him the usual “great job”. The next time he wanted to see how much longer he could go without a break and concentrated on his work instead of rushing it. This tactic works in any situation. We praise him for the number of times he stops the soccer ball before passing, the number of attempts he makes on a pull-up bar before giving up, or the amount of effort he applies when solving math problems.
Be sincere with your praise
Carol Dweck says that sincerity of praise is equally important. She finds that only young children, under the age of seven, take praise at face value. Older children pay attention to the sincerity of praise and are able to sense the true meaning of a backhanded compliment or a disingenuous apology. Just like adults, children also scrutinize praise for hidden agendas. If we slip up a few times, we risk losing their trust which means our praise loses any power. So use praise wisely. Don’t jump in to praise your kids just because other kids are getting praised around them. Do not make casual praising a habit, which brings us to my next point.
Don’t make praise an addiction
The research from Reed College and Stanford showed that frequent and excessive praise or rewards counteract children’s ability to develop persistence. When children become addicted to praise, they begin doing things only to hear the reward and give up as soon as the rewards go away. So, instead of setting up your child’s brain for a chemical need for constant reward, help them develop a strategy for handling failure. Carol Dweck’s research suggests that intermittent reinforcement is an effective way to do that. You can develop your kids’ persistence by using praise strategically, not rewarding them after every accomplished task. The point of this is, basically, to train the brain that even the most challenging obstacles can be worked through. By not praising their actions every time, you can allow kids to make their own conclusion about their strengths and opportunities.
In conclusion, I would like to leave you with advice from Carol Dweck. She says that
If you want to give your children a gift, the best thing you can do is teach your children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy the effort, and keep on learning. That way, your children won’t be slaves of praise and will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.