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growth mindset in children

What is Growth Mindset in Children? And Why Should Parents Care?

Over the past decade, the theory of growth mindset in children has taken the world by storm. This seeming golden ticket to success has changed the way we think, talk about and do everything from early childhood education to geopolitics to business. But as with any pop psychology juggernaut, misunderstanding grows along with popularity. So, here’s what growth mindset in children actually means, and why you, as a parent, should care.

What is growth mindset in children?

The concept of mindset as a driver of motivation and success was introduced in 2006 by Carol Dweck, PhD, a psychologist at Stanford University, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In it, Dweck identified two attitudes or mindsets: Growth and fixed. People with fixed mindsets believe intelligence, character and creativity are inherent and unchangeable traits, and their success affirms their inborn qualities. People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, believe these qualities can be built over time, that new knowledge can be learned, creativity developed, skills improved.

At first glance, most people probably identify with growth mindset – of course we, as people, learn, grow and change. But it’s not so simple. The difference between fixed and growth mindset – and where the apples and oranges are really separated – is in people’s reaction to challenge and failure.

For fixed-mindset people, challenges and failures are a reflection on who they are. “This maths problem is difficult; I’m not good at maths.” Challenges loom more largely for fixed-mindset people; if you believe you are inherently smart, but you struggle with, say, chemistry, which becomes a threat to your identity as a Smart Person. This is, perhaps, why Dweck’s many experiments found that students with fixed mindsets reacted to failure by saying they would cheat the next time, or saying they would look for someone who performed worse. Further studies by Dweck and her team found fixed mindset students avoid difficult activities that don’t assure them of success.

Students with growth mindsets, however, responded joyously to challenges set by Dweck and her team, or at least with tenacity in problem-solving.

Other research by Dweck and a team of neuroscientists shows actual differences in brain activity associated with fixed and growth mindsets. This study as two groups – people with fixed and people with growth mindsets – to take a general knowledge quiz while hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, technology that can detect brain activity through electric pulses. When participants got an answer wrong, they were corrected. When they reached the end, participants were surprised with a request to retake the test.

When people with fixed mindsets took the test the first time, brain imaging showed they had more active limbic systems, the parts of the brain that regulates internal emotional response. In other words, they were more concerned about the internal emotions elicited by their incorrect answers. The growth mindset group, however, showed more activity in the part of the brain that processes words’ meanings and relationships and, when their answers were corrected, the part that helps us focus attention externally. In other words, they paid more attention to the information in the feedback than how it made them feel.

It’s important to note that Dweck’s research, which spans two decades, is not without detractors; statisticians particularly have challenged her findings. However, two meta-analyses – large-scale reviews of findings across similar studies – back up her claims about fixed and growth mindset. Dweck herself has attempted to live the mindset she advocates for by inviting critics to help her correct or improve her research.

Why is growth mindset important?

Well, for one thing, it is influencing education policy right and left, all over the globe. School after school is attempting to make instilling a growth mindset in children a priority, as it’s the biggest developer of “grit,” the character trait most closely predictive of success across all professional fields, according to research by Angela Lee Duckworth.

But you should also care because parents are big influencers of children’s mindsets, but it’s tricky business. Your attempts to build confidence might also be the development of growth mindset in children. Fostering a growth mindset is done primarily through praise – but a very specific kind of praise.

In one now-famous study, Dweck’s team gave an easy puzzle to a group of fourth graders. After each child completed the puzzle, they received a single line of praise. At random, some children received praise of their intellect or ability, while the others were praised for their effort. Then, the children were asked to choose a second puzzle – either one that was easy, like the first, or one that was more difficult but would let them learn something new.

Astoundingly, 90% of children praised for effort chose the more difficult option, while most children praised for their intellect or ability chose the easier option.

“When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes,” Dweck wrote in the study.

In a following round, the children weren’t given a choice between easy and hard – and the test was harder, designed for a higher grade. While none of the children could solve the test, the ones praised for their effort were more involved, willing to try any solution. The children praised for their static ability were miserable.  

And in a final round, the children were given tests as easy as the first round. Children who had been praised for their effort did 30% better than their original scores; children who’d been told they were smart, performed worse by 20%.

“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” Dweck explained further. “They see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

Dweck advocates for parents, caregivers, teachers and well, everyone, really, to praise process, not smarts and achievement. It’s the difference between “Good job! You’re really bright,” and “I like how you’re searching everywhere to find the answer.” And it’s a philosophy parents, educators and even businessmen are adopting in droves, at least superficially. Sometimes, we send different signals, despite our good intentions, Dweck said in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic, and kids pick up on it:

“We have a new line of research (with my former graduate student, Kyla Haimovitz) showing that the way a parent reacts to a child’s failure conveys a mindset to a child regardless of the parent’s mindset. If parents react to their child’s failures as though there is something negative, if they rush in, are anxious, reassure the child, “Oh not everyone can be good at math, don’t worry, you’re good at other things,” the child gets it that no, this is important, and it’s fixed. That child is developing a fixed mindset, even if the parent has a growth mindset.

But if the parent reacts to a child’s failure as though it’s something that enhances learning, asking, “Okay, what is this teaching us? Where should we go next? Should we talk to the teacher about how we can learn this better?” that child comes to understand that abilities can be developed.”

It’s a rushed-over nuance that has given rise to a recast of Dweck’s theory as a reward for effort that doesn’t lead to knowledge – which actually plays more into developing fixed than growth mindset in children. She calls it the “false growth mindset” – praise of effort that doesn’t actually lead to anything. The goal of praise, she explains, shouldn’t be for children to keep spinning their wheels, it should be for them to try one strategy or seek help from one resource; then, if it doesn’t work, seek out a new strategy or resource and try again; effort by itself is not growth.

“[S]tudents know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize,” she said in 2016. “They also know you think they can’t do any better.”

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