Success and Failure

Growth mindset and fixed mindset road signs
Growth mindset and fixed mindset road signs

A few weeks ago, I was watching a football game at a friend’s house. My friend’s 15-month-old toddler was running around like crazy, meaning that the parents weren’t able to watch the game. Trying to help, I took a pile of blocks and set them on one side of the room. I took a bucket and set it on the other side of the room. I showed her how to take a block from the pile, walk over to the other side of the room, and put it in the bucket. For the next 30 minutes, she worked tirelessly to put those blocks in that bucket. The entire thing was spectacular for a few reasons. First, us grown-ups got to watch the football game for a little while. Second, she worked relentlessly hard at what is a pretty tough task when you are just mastering walking. Completing a task like this is what developmental scientists call goal-oriented behavior. Her (very challenging) goal was to put all the blocks in the bucket, and she delivered.

As parents and caregivers, we want to raise children who accomplish their goals, even if they face some adversity along the way. Beginning on their first birthday, how we approach our children’s successes and failures teaches them about their own abilities and whether or not they can face frustrating challenges. It turns out, these interactions in the first five years of childhood have very real implications for how children face challenges in life.

For the last 20 years, scientific evidence has been stacking up that suggests that children’s belief systems about themselves have implications for their future achievement. Children can be categorized in two different groups: (1) children who think that ability or talent is fixed or trait-like, and (2) children who think that ability or talent is malleable and can grow. Scientists call these a fixed mindset and a growth mindset respectively.

Let’s take intelligence for example. Children can believe that intelligence is fixed (You have it or you don’t.) or children can believe that intelligence is malleable (If you work at something, you can become more intelligent at it.). How a child thinks about intelligence has real world implications for their school success. Imagine a preschool student who is working on letter identification. A child struggling with the content who has a fixed view of intelligence is more likely to give up (“I am not smart enough and this is too hard.”). A child struggling with the content who has a growth mindset is less likely to give up (“I can get better at letters if I work at it – I can grow my ability.”).

Unsurprisingly, children with a growth mindset are more motivated and are more likely to achieve goals. The evidence is pretty strong that children with a growth mindset do better academically. Why is this? The answer lies in resilience when facing a challenge. Children who believe that they can grow their own ability and talent are more likely to put in the work when the going gets tough. They are motivated because they think that effort will pay off. In contrast, children with a fixed view are less likely to persevere through a challenge. These children view any failure or difficulty as being an indicator of their (potential) lack of intelligence – and so, they disengage.

We want to teach our children to rise to each challenge. Our words and actions about life’s successes and failures are what teach our children a growth mindset, ultimately developing our children’s ability to persist in challenging tasks. There are two specific ways we can help a child develop a growth mindset. First, we can praise our children for the effort that led to task completion, not for their ability. Second, we can provide critical feedback on failures that is constructive and encourages children to try again.

Let’s look at each strategy in turn.

Praise your child for effort that leads to an outcome. Researchers distinguish between two types of praise: process praise and person praise. Process praise comments on the effort a child puts into something. Person praise comments on the child’s ability. Imagine a 3-year-old building a block tower. Process praise would say something like, “Wow! You worked so hard and look at that tall tower!” Person praise would comment directly on the child’s ability with something like, “Wow! You are the best block builder in the history of mankind!!” Science backs up that children who receive more process praise are more motivated and work harder at challenging tasks. This is true in an experimental lab setting and in the real world. It starts at very young ages. Children who get more process praise between 14 and 38 months (roughly 1 to 3 years of age) have higher math and reading achievement in 4th grade – and this is completely explained by these children having a growth mindset. In other words, being praised for effort that led to a success helps children develop the idea that through effort, they can improve their own abilities or talents. This belief about oneself leads to greater academic achievement.

The takeaway? Praise the effort that led to the accomplishment, not the child’s skill.

The caveat – simply providing praise (“You are working hard!”) that isn’t tied to some sort of goal or accomplishment does not seem to affect growth mindset. In fact, praising effort all willy-nilly may lead to poor outcomes. So tie the specific praise of effort to an accomplishment (“You have been working so hard and now you know the letter T! Amazing!”).

Provide constructive feedback on failure. New research suggests that parents’ view of failure can impact how a child perceives challenges. Specifically, parents who view failure as an opportunity are more likely to have children with a growth mindset. In a similar framework to how we think of praise, we can provide critical feedback to children in two ways. First, we can use person-focused criticism, which would comment on a personal quality of a child that led to the mistake or failure. Alternatively, we can use process-focused criticism, which would call attention to the strategy the child used that led to failure. Let’s return to the example of a 3-year old building a block tower. When the tower falls over, a person-focused criticism would comment negatively on the ability of the child (“You are terrible at building towers.”). A process-focused criticism would comment on the strategy used by the child (“I noticed you put the tiny blocks on the bottom and the big blocks on the top. Could you try it a different way that would make the tower not fall over?”).

As you can imagine, children who hear the process-focused criticism are more likely to try again and to develop a growth mindset. These are the kids who learn to persevere through challenge and failure to reach goals.

What does this boil down to? Provide constructive feedback on your child’s failures. Parents who view failure as a potential opportunity tend to talk about setbacks in a way that encourages trying again to face a challenge. In turn, this leads to children more resiliently face future challenges.

Take a moment to step back and evaluate how you have responded to your young child in their recent successes and failures. How could you have handled those events in a way that encouraged your child to face future challenges? Using praise and criticism in process-focused ways is a powerful tool for developing your child’s belief that their own hard work will lead to accomplishments. And luckily, it’s something that all parents and caregivers can work on. Even though your child is still young, what you do now is important. For small changes in our parenting, we can reap large benefits in our children’s success.

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