Cultivating a Growth Mindset
Every parent wants their kids to succeed in school. One method to measure student performance is the Grade Point Average (GPA). Our education system puts an extraordinary emphasis on this academic record, especially in the high school years. An excellent GPA offers a pathway to the best universities and colleges. However, the pressure to attain high GPAs can sometimes trigger anxiety and other mental health issues in both children and parents. What is meant to measure achievement can unfortunately become destructive and discouraging.
Coping with all of this during a pandemic can make household life even more chaotic and difficult than it is. After all, we have gone through months of disruption and uncertainty. Virtually every family is adjusting to a new way of navigating their world. Your child may be pursuing their schooling in a new environment, perhaps even all online. Pandemic safety has constrained their socialization, and they may not have access to the extra-curricular activities they enjoyed before to de-stress and let off steam. Has all of this been difficult for your child? Perhaps you have noticed a lack of interest in school and a diminished drive for academic striving? If so, this might be an opportune time to foster a growth mindset to help your child cope with change and uncertainty.
What Is A Growth Mindset?
Growth Mindset is a term coined by psychologist and Stanford researcher, Carol Dweck in her book, Mindset, The New Psychology of Success. In it, she summarizes traits found in successful people. They embrace challenges, overcome obstacles, learn from failures and actively glean inspiration from others. Also, such individuals possess a natural love for growth and self-improvement and will spend time and effort feeding these passions.
Comparing them to the opposite, people with a fixed mindset accept their talents and weaknesses as innate traits. If they are good at something, they will spend time highlighting their talents instead of improving them. And when they discover a task they are not good at, they give up rather than risk failure. They may avoid challenges and struggle to accept feedback from others as their fixed mindset leaves them feeling insecure about being smart or capable.
Researchers have shown through a multitude of studies that individuals with a growth mindset outperform those with a fixed mindset. When parents help kids embrace their natural curiosity to develop a love for the process of learning, they build resiliency through a growth mindset. Astonishingly, few parents understand this important discipline and how to instill it in their children. This blog offers you six techniques.
1. Praise Effort, Not Outcome
Undoubtedly, praise and encouragement go a long way to motivate kids to reach higher. However, Dr. Dweck demonstrates how praise can also inhibit children from taking risks. A child who already believes they are clever, might not engage in a challenging problem for fear of looking less smart and losing the admiration of their parents. This does not mean you should refrain from praising your child. Instead, try shining a spotlight on their efforts to introduce a subtle but important paradigm change in their psyche. For example, you could replace “You are so smart!” with “You are such a hard worker!” or “I love how you don’t give up!” Such statements redefine your child’s value system by giving currency to the energy he or she spends on the tasks.
2. Value Curiosity Over Grades
One of the chief benefits of the growth mindset is that children develop a love for learning. A child’s mind is naturally curious and open to discovery. Why then does the growth mindset not occur automatically in every child? In many cases, the answer lies in conditioning and the child’s learning environment.
Obvious culprits are global statements like “We’re just not good at math in this family.” They lead to unhealthy and unnecessary self-fulfilling prophecies that shunt confidence and prevent the seeds of a growth mindset from taking root. Other negative influences can come from placing too much value on grades. Here, your child will become less interested in the lessons, which become a means to an end. A fixation on grades will take over to become their measure of worthiness. This can subdue all notions of natural curiosity that exist in their minds. Psychologists call this the “external justification of effort” effect.
Parents can lead by example to make curiosity and a love for discovery a natural part of your family life. Outings and vacations can become learning moments to expose kids to the fascinating world around them. Exhibiting interest and asking questions about the topics your child is studying will allow you to bring this concept directly into their education. For example, stating, “Wow! Can you believe a tiny gene is responsible for why you have curly hair?” might start a discussion that also sparks a healthy thirst for knowledge. Your child will have to contend with tests, exams and grades throughout their schooling; you can balance the scales to help them appreciate that grades are secondary to the pleasure of acquiring knowledge.
3. Foster Perseverance
Losing focus and forgetting deadlines for homework are common issues kids struggle with at the best of times. But the pandemic can magnify this problem. Online learning may inherently come with distractions for some children. Wearing masks in class might lead to discomfort in others. Children of all ages, including teens, cannot skillfully recognize and label their feelings. Without solutions to their persistent irritations and an inability to express themselves, tempers can flare and your child may develop a dislike for school, itself.
Instead of coming down hard on them, try to remember your life just a few months ago. Many adults were forced to make changes on a dime. Did you scramble to figure Zoom out while hosting your first remote team meeting? Perhaps you had to wear PPE at work and the mask caused your glasses to fog up, slowing you down. Things may not have gone so smoothly in the beginning. But blaming yourself for an impossible situation would have been unhelpful. Over time, you worked things out and settled into your new mode of operation.
This is likely what your child is going through, too. Criticizing them when they might genuinely be struggling with change will stifle their confidence. The pandemic presents an amazing opportunity to instill perseverance in your children. You can acknowledge their challenges and help with solutions. For example, try saying, “I can see how hard you are trying to get used to online classes. What can we do to help you get your homework done on time?” By doing this, you instill elements of the growth mindset, that we get stronger and more resilient by trying new strategies and asking for help along the way.
Breaking down the solutions into baby steps will keep your child from becoming overwhelmed. You can boost their confidence levels by giving them credit for their adaptability. This world-changing event did not come with an instruction manual. Even adults are trying to figure things out. Remind them that they are developing beings, learning how to persevere in a new world.
4. Growth Mindset & Hero Worship
In fact, you can use their role models and heroes to reinforce messages about perseverance. Society glorifies sports heroes, music superstars and successful business gurus. But when we do, we often overlook how the genesis of their talent came from superior work effort and overcoming failure. Dr. Dweck notes how Michael Jordan was rejected by his varsity basketball team and did not get into his first-choice college. A growth mindset motivated him to treat these setbacks head-on as challenges that he had to overcome.
You can apply the same analogy to your child’s heroes, regardless of whether they are Paw Patrol pups or Steve Jobs. Draw their attention to how their heroes persistently chipped away at their goals and solved problems by saying, “Wow, imagine the years of practice that went into getting this good!” Celebrate creative problem solving and reinforce how much you admire people who keep trying to overcome their obstacles. You could even share stories of failure in your life, focusing on the gains you made from adversity.
5. Managing Failure with Growth Mindset
This point might seem controversial, but do you have a tendency to soothe your hurt child too quickly following a failure? Dr. Dweck points out that, in order to develop a tolerance for disappointment, we must allow children to feel and process uncomfortable emotions. By shielding them from these emotions, or forcing them to “toughen up and get over it”, your child risks becoming narcissistic with a fragile ego and an aversion for trying new things.
As an example, consider the disappointment of a young boy who has just lost a hard-fought soccer game. You could punch your fist in the air, blame the referee and rant about how the team should have won. This will certainly help your child feel vindicated. But it will also create an unhealthy sense of entitlement.
Instead, try to help your child process the failure constructively by saying, “This was so disappointing because I know you tried your best. The other team played well and had a better strategy this time. Let’s focus on your practice sessions so you can improve your game and you can have another go at them next time.”
Compassionately helping children face their failures and process their grief instills emotional resiliency, an important aspect of the growth mindset. Undoubtedly, this will help them cope with bigger problems in the future.
6. Parental Expectations
This last point is a big one, and often messy to untangle. Here, we ask parents to look within and be honest with yourselves. Is your own ego pushing your child’s performance? Do you have preset expectations of who your child should grow up to be that goes against the grain of their individuality? Are you imposing an unhelpful belief system about high grades on your child and inhibiting their growth mindset from flourishing?
If so, realize the enormous burden you place on your child when you polarize them into making choices between their own wants and their desire to please you. Parents who get this entangled in their kids’ successes and failures can lose perspective, and fail to support them when they need you the most. By focusing on perfection over progress you will make learning unenjoyable and undermine your child’s natural instinct to learn and grow. A stressed-out child will likely perform poorly in school. And when this occurs, you might become anxiety-ridden too, because you have made your child’s success a measure of your own. Parents can raise joyful, curious and emotionally healthy children by helping them develop into the unique individuals they are born to be, and by not forcing perfection into their characters.
When To Seek Help
Parenting is an exercise in trial and error. Wouldn’t it be easy if we had a roadmap laid out for us to follow? A growth mindset is one of the most important characteristics you can instill in your child. The techniques described above will help you achieve this. But you require good communication and a healthy relationship with your child before they are ready to accept it. Without this foundation, be prepared for eye-rolls, resistance to your suggestions and outright defiance from your child.
If your parent-child relationship has become a struggle, then most parents look for help initially by conducting on-line research. Others reach out to in-laws, other parents, friends and teachers for guidance. If you have received nothing but conflicting advice and your relationship has not improved, it might be time to get professional help. A trained and experienced therapist can help unpack the issues and get to solutions within a few sessions.
At Beaches Therapy Group, we rely on evidence-based parenting psychology to support you. Contact us for a free assessment of your situation.
About The Author
Laura Devlin, MA C.Psych Assoc., is a Registered Psychological Associate with over 10 years of experience, and a managing director at Beaches Therapy Group. We have counselled numerous parents on how to raise emotionally healthy and happy children.
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