How to Get Kids Into a Growth Mindset

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Parents’ attitudes toward failure, not their beliefs about intelligence, shine through.

By Nathan Collins

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(Photo: Stephan Hochhaus/Flickr)

Like many other things, we develop our beliefs about intelligence—whether it’s fixed or malleable—from our parents. But really, it’s not our parents’ beliefs about intelligence that matter, according to new research—it’s their beliefs about failure that makes the difference.

“Researchers, educators, and policymakers agree that parents are key to children’s motivation and success in school and beyond,” Stanford University psychology graduate student Kyla Haimovitz and professor Carol Dweck write in Psychological Science. But it’s not clear how parents can best help their kids succeed. (Praising intelligence, for example, can backfire.) A more promising approach is to encourage kids to think of intelligence as something they can develop, though in a way that approach just pushes the question back: How do parents encourage that kind of growth mindset in their kids? In particular, is it enough for parents themselves to have a growth mindset?

In fact, parents’ beliefs about the nature of intelligence may not matter all that much.

In a word, no. In fact, parents’ beliefs about the nature of intelligence may not matter all that much, Haimovitz and Dweck find. To investigate, the researchers polled 73 fourth- and fifth-grade students and their parents in the San Francisco Bay Area about their intelligence and failure mindsets. Haimovitz and Dweck asked parents how strongly, on a scale from one to six, they agreed with statements regarding failure (“the effects of failure are positive and should be utilized,” for example) and intelligence (“You can learn new things but you can’t really change how intelligent you are”). Kids also took the intelligence survey, substituting the word “smart” for “intelligent”—the latter is kind of a big word for a fourth grader.

Although there was some correlation between parents’ and kids’ intelligence mindsets, the connection between parents’ failure mindsets—basically, whether they thought failure was an opportunity or a sign that their child is a dullard—and kids’ intelligence mindsets was about 50 percent stronger and more statistically clear-cut.

Most likely, that’s because attitudes toward failure are simply more visible. From an online survey of 160 parents, Haimovitz and Dweck learned that parents who view failure as debilitating were more likely to pity their kids and doubt their ability. A third experiment with 102 children and their parents suggests that kids are at least somewhat aware of their parents’ failure mindsets.

Failure mindsets are unlikely to be the only thing that matters, of course, but the findings could help parents make better choices for their kids. “[A]n intervention targeting parents’ failure mind-sets could teach parents how failure can be beneficial, and how to react to their children’s setbacks so as to maintain their children’s motivation and learning,” Haimovitz and Dweck write.

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