[Photo Credit: “Victorious” by Marina Del Castell, used via Creative Commons License CC BY 2.0]
One of the most powerful truths you can teach your kids is the idea the brain is like a muscle: the more you use your brain, the smarter you get! Stanford University professor Carol Dweck identifies this as a “growth mindset” of intelligence versus a “fixed mindset.”
Kids and teens with a “growth mindset” of intelligence believe that they can always get a lot smarter than they currently are, if they keep trying, practicing, and learning. This is in line with the current research on the brain, which tells us that the brain is able to keep changing and growing and making new connections throughout an entire lifetime. This doesn’t mean that every child will become a Nobel-prize-winning genius, but it does mean that every person can gain more competence and ability than they currently have when they practice. In research studies, kids who learned this “growth mindset” tended to work harder, be motivated to try more difficult tasks, and see an improvement in their academic scores.
Kids and teens who have a “fixed mindset” of intelligence believe that some people are smart, that some people are dumb, and that these levels of intelligence cannot really be changed. This mindset causes kids to become afraid of trying difficult things, because if they failed, it would prove that they are not truly smart. Kids and teens with a “fixed mindset” of intelligence tend to stick to easier tasks and seek to maintain others’ approval.
One way that parents and teachers inadvertently reinforce beliefs about intelligence is through their praise. Children and teens who are praised for their effort and hard work are being taught that success is something they can achieve through hard work. Those who are praised for being “smart” or “talented” are being taught that these are innate qualities that they possess, which their work only serves to prove or disprove.
What can you say to create a “growth mindset” in your kids?
- “Your brain is like a muscle. The more you use it, the smarter you get!”
- “Wow, great job. You must have put a lot of effort into this.”
- “I can see you’re still trying, even though this is really hard. That shows perseverance.”
- “I am impressed by how you can do a handstand now. I remember when you were just starting to learn. You must have really practiced!”
- “I see you taking on harder and harder math problems to solve. You’re really stretching your brain power!”
What kind of words might reinforce a “fixed mindset”?
- “Wow, great job. You must be really smart.”
- “That song sounds beautiful. Your piano teacher says that you are really talented.”
- “You’re so fast at figuring that out. I can tell you’re really good at this.”
- “Jimmy just isn’t as smart as you.”
- “Math comes so easily to you.”
Here is a video clip of one of Carol Dweck’s experiments with children, showing the difference between the “growth mindset” and the “fixed mindset”: