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March 22, 2016 8:00 AM EDT
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

What makes kids persist? What gives them the “grit” to keep working hard in school, to get good grades and ultimately be successful in life?

A big contributor is having a “growth mindset.”

You may have heard about this before but many people don’t understand it nearly as well as they think.

To make sure you and I get it right I called Carol Dweck. She came up with the growth mindset idea. Carol is a professor at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

A lot of people are making a lot of mistakes when it comes to this subject. Here’s Carol:

So let’s get to the bottom of what a growth mindset really is, what people are getting wrong, and how we can all use it to increase grit and success in our lives and the lives of our children…

What Is A “Growth Mindset”, Really?

A “fixed” mindset says that your basic qualities (like intelligence) are set in stone. You have what you have and that’s all you’re getting.

A “growth” mindset is the belief that your abilities can be improved through effort. And this means you can get better and hard work pays off. Here’s Carol:

When people have a fixed mindset and they don’t do well at something immediately, they quit. If you don’t believe you can really improve, why keep trying?

From Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

But when you have a growth mindset, great things can happen. Here’s Carol:

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In her research, when kids were encouraged to take a growth mindset, they showed more grit and got better grades:

Not only that, but getting kids away from a fixed mindset made them less aggressive and nicer:

So a growth mindset is definitely a benefit. But there’s a catch…

Just because you might have a growth mindset doesn’t mean your kids will too. You need to make an effort to deliberately encourage it in your children. Here’s Carol:

(To learn the number one mistake parents make when arguing with kids, click here.)

So how do you instill this perspective in your children — and not make the mistakes many people do when it comes to growth mindset? Here are 6 tips from Carol that will help:


1) Don’t Praise Ability Or Intelligence

When you celebrate a child’s abilities you promote a fixed mindset. They have a quality and they won’t want to “lose” it. So they’ll take fewer risks and will be more likely to quit. Here’s Carol:

Carol’s research showed praising a child’s intelligence instead of their effort reduced grit, made the kids enjoy their work less and they didn’t perform as well:

What should you compliment? Their effort, strategies and choices. This tells them that elbow grease is the way to improve, and it’s not all due to one “you-have-it-or-you-don’t” innate quality.

From Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

(To learn how to raise happy children, click here.)

So you’re praising effort, not ability. Great. But what are the mistakes people are making with growth mindset that we need to address?


2) Don’t Ignore Outcome, Tie It To Effort

A lot of people think that praising effort means you should ignore the outcome — what the kid achieved. Wrong. You can celebrate a child’s success, but attribute it to their hard work, not innate talent. Here’s Carol:

(To learn what new research says the most important parenting skills are, click here.)

But what if the kid doesn’t succeed when they try something? That’s not to be ignored, it’s actually very important…

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3) Respond Positively To Failure

Another mistake people make with trying to promote a growth mindset is they think they have to gloss over or ignore when a child fails. Wrong again. This is a critical time for learning.

Showing the kid you don’t have to be perfect every time and that failure is how you learn and improve is quite valuable. Here’s Carol:

(To learn what science says about how to have a happy family, click here.)

A lot of people are good at praising effort but still aren’t really encouraging a growth mindset. Why? Just saying, “Try harder” isn’t enough…


4) Don’t Just Say “Try Hard.” Help Kids Set Goals.

Effort is what you want to praise but encouraging blind repetition doesn’t teach a child the right perspective. You need to emphasize learning, the ability to improve, trying specific strategies and setting goals. Here’s Carol:

(To learn the six things happy families have in common, click here.)

It may sound like your overall mindset is a lightswitch: either it’s fixed or growth. Nope. You can have different mindsets in different arenas. And that’s something that needs to be addressed…


5) Teach Growth Mindset In All Areas Of Life

Kids may have a growth mindset while playing sports (“I can learn to throw the ball better if I practice”) but not at school (“I’m just no good at math.”)

Children need to learn they can get better in almost every area of life if they work hard. Here’s Carol:

(To learn how to make your kids smarter, click here.)

What’s a good specific way to convey all this to kids on a regular basis so they apply it?


6) Talk To Your Kids About Your Own Growth Mindset Efforts

Telling your kids how you personally faced challenges and then overcame them by effort (not by innate talent or intelligence) is a good way to discuss the subject in an organic way. (And it also makes sure you’re using a growth mindset regularly yourself.) Here’s Carol:

And when you tell kids any story think about the underlying message it’s sending: is it growth or fixed?

From Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

(To learn the 4 new parenting tips that will make your kids awesome, click here.)

Okay, we’ve learned a lot from Carol. Let’s round it all up and find out the simplest way to convey the usefulness of a growth mindset…

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Sum Up

Here are Carol’s tips for encouraging a growth mindset:

  • Don’t Praise Ability Or Intelligence: That promotes a fixed mindset. Compliment effort, process and choices.
  • Don’t Ignore Outcome, Tie It To Effort: You can be happy when your kid succeeds, but attribute it to effort.
  • Respond Positively To Failure: They need to know that failure isn’t bad, it’s a tool for improving.
  • Don’t Just Say “Try Hard.” Help Kids Set Goals: Blind repetition doesn’t work. Help kids strategize.
  • Teach Growth Mindset In All Areas Of Life: There’s no area where they cannot improve with hard work.
  • Talk To Your Kids About Your Own Growth Mindset Efforts: Practice it yourself and share your results.

Carol didn’t come up with the growth mindset idea just out of the blue. She grew up in a strict fixed mindset environment.

In the 6th grade her class was assigned seats based on IQ score. Class privileges were only doled out to kids with the highest numbers. This made her feel she couldn’t take risks or try new things because she might lose status.

But through her work she discovered a whole new way of looking at the world. One that made life far more rewarding and exciting. Here’s Carol:

When people have a fixed mindset, life is black and white. You have a talent or you don’t. You’re not in control and things can’t get better. You’re stuck. You just have to be what you are.

But when we take a growth mindset, we do have control. Our lives and our world can get better if we try. And with work, we can become better every day. That’s the kind of life we all want to lead.

As Carol says in her book:

“Becoming is better than being.”

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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