Don’t tell your kids they’re smart: nurture a growth mindset [book quotes]

Don’t tell your kids they’re smart: nurture a growth mindset [book quotes]

Don’t tell your kids they’re smart: nurture a growth mindset [book quotes] 1280 853 Looking out Loud

“Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.”

– Carol Dweck

How do you raise kids to be successful, not just today, but in the long run? How do you bring out their full potential? How do you respond to their successes and let-downs?

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has been researching this topic for decades. Her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success dives into people’s beliefs about ability and potential—and how these beliefs affect outcomes. It’s full of practical advice and suggestions for parents for how to encourage a growth mindset in their children.

Many readers have also noted that the book is long and repetitive. So I’ve tried to capture the gist of the mindset concept, along with book quotes and actual words you can use to encourage a healthy growth mindset in your kids.

What is a growth mindset?

Children—and adults—with a “growth mindset” believe that their abilities, creativity, and intelligence can be developed through effort and persistence. Rather than being discouraged by failure, a growth mindset sees mistakes as opportunities to learn. They embrace challenges, and persist in the face of obstacles.

“A growth mindset is about believing people can develop their abilities. It’s that simple.”

– Carol Dweck

Contrast this with what Dweck calls a “fixed mindset,” which assumes that intelligence and creativite ability are something you either have or you don’t have. People with this mindset believe that effort plays a minimal role in outcomes. Smart kids get it, dumb kids don’t. They avoid challenges, and give up easily in the face of obstacles. Dweck explains what this leads to:

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over… Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”

Basically, if success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. As we’ve all experienced, kids start picking this up early in school. Here’s how these different mindsets look when applied to the math classroom:

Fixed: Mathematicians as geniuses: there are some people who are born smart in math and everything is easy for them. Then there are the rest of you.
Growth: Mathematicians are people who become passionate about math: skills and achievement come through commitment and effort.

Your preferred perspective can follow you forever. Twenty years of research have shown that “the view that you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life,” as Dweck puts it.

So, what can parents do? You can start by being attentive to what you say to your children.

“In fact, every word and action can send a message. It tells children or students or athletes how to think about themselves. It can be a fixed mindset message that says you have permanent traits and I’m judging them. Or it can be a growth mindset message that says you are a developing person and I am committed to your development.”

And as Dweck hammers home, “It’s remarkable how sensitive children are to these messages, and how concerned they are about them.”

Below are some passages (in “quotes”) pulled from Dr. Dweck’s book Mindset that I found particularly insightful, followed by some useful reminders of what to say, or not say, around your kids.

Mindset quotes for parents

“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, seek new strategies, and keep on learning.”

– Carol Dweck

We all want our children to be confident, but it turns out that it’s not so simple. In fact, it can be counterintuitive.

“Parents think they can hand children per minute confidence, like a gift, by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, seek new strategies, and keep on learning.”

But what about when we’re really proud of our kids and their accomplishments?

“Does this mean we can’t praise our children enthusiastically when they do something great? Should we try to restrain our admiration for their success? Not at all. It just means that we should keep away from a certain kind of praise: praise that judges their intelligence or talent, or praise that implies that we are proud of them for their intelligence or talent rather than for the work they put in.”

By phrasing our interest and enthusiasm around a child’s inputs and ongoing development, we help build a healthy growth mindset.

“We can appreciate them as much as we want for the growth-oriented process, what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and a good strategy. And we can ask them about their work in a way that recognizes and shows interest in their efforts and choices.”

This is how you help kids climb mountains.

Kid at stairs.

What to say to your kids to build a growth mindset

Philip: “Gee, I’m so clumsy.”
Father: “That’s not what we say when nails spill.”
Philip: “What do you say?”
Father: “You say, the nails spilled, I’ll pick them up.”
Philip: “Just like that?”
Father: “Just like that.”
Philip: “Thanks, Dad.”

Looking for the right words, but not sure what to say? Here are some model suggestions offered by Dr. Dweck from her research.

  • “You really studied for your test and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, you outlined it, and you tested yourself on it. It really worked.” 
  • “I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you finally got it. You thought of a lot of different ways to do it and found the one that worked.” 
  • I like that you took on that challenging project for your science class. It will take a lot of work, doing research, designing the apparatus, buying the parts, and building it. Boy, you are going to learn a lot of great things.”
  • “That homework was so long and involved. I really admire the way you concentrated and finished it.”
  • “That picture has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.” 
  • “You put so much thought into that essay. It really makes me understand Shakespeare in a new way.”
  • “The passion you put into the piano piece gives me a real feeling of joy. How do you feel when you play it?”

For some children who may have learning difficulties, more effort might not be enough. If you find yourself in this situation, emphasize finding the right strategies:

  • “Everyone learns in a different way. Let’s keep trying to find the way that works for you.”

And what about kids who are zipping through the material quickly, and doing a great job? It turns out that praise isn’t the answer here. As Dweck says, “speed and perfection are the enemy of difficult learning.” So instead try something like this:

  • “Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from.”
  • “Son, this looks like a really boring assignment. You have my sympathy. Can you think of a way to make it more interesting?

Sometimes kids aren’t putting in the effort that’s needed for success. Here’s one from a case study of a girl who wanted to excel, but hadn’t yet put in the time:

  • “Elizabeth, I know how you feel. It’s so disappointing to have your hopes up and to perform your best but not to win. But you know, you haven’t really earned it yet. There were many girls there who’ve been in gymnastics longer than you and who’ve worked a lot harder than you. If this is something you really want, then it’s something you’ll really have to work for.”

Elizabeth’s father also let her know that it was fine if she wanted to do gymnastics purely for fun. But if she wanted to excel in competitions, more time was needed. He sympathized with her disappointment, without giving her a phony boost that would set her up for further disappointment.

What kind of teacher are you?

“Show me what you’ve done, let’s try to understand how you were thinking, and then let’s figure out what you should try next.”

– Carol Dweck

Here are a few more Mindset quotes to keep in mind when it comes time to teach.

  • “Next time you are in a position to discipline, ask yourself what is the message I’m sending here: I will judge and punish you? Or I will help you think and learn?”
  • “The great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.”
  • “Every day [the teacher] tells his students that he is no smarter than they are, just more experienced. He constantly makes them see how much they have grown, how assignments that were once hard have become easier because of their practice and discipline.”
  • “I think it’s too easy for a teacher to say, ‘Oh this child wasn’t born with it, so I won’t waste my time.’ Too many teachers hide their own lack of ability behind that statement.”

And be careful how you react to a child’s mistakes or failures, because they’re reading you.

  • “When a child has a setback and a parent reacts with anxiety or with concern about the child’s ability, this fosters more of a fixed mindset in the child. The parent may try to gloss over the child’s failure, but the very act of doing so may convey that the failure is an issue. So, although parents may hold a growth mindset, they may still display worry about their child’s confidence or morale when the child stumbles.”

So how should you react instead?

  • “It’s the parents who respond to their children’s setbacks with interest and treat them as opportunities for learning that are transmitting a growth mindset to their children. These parents think setbacks are good things that should be embraced, and that setback should be used as a platform for learning.”

Misunderstanding the growth mindset

The importance of mindset has crept into the popular media on self-improvement and childhood development, and mindset coaches and courses abound to guide you. It’s great that the interest and importance of developing a positive growth mindset is now known. But Dweck is also concerned that many people have twisted the meaning of mindset, at least as she sees it. In the book, she outlines three misunderstandings that often appear around mindset.

Misunderstanding 1: a growth mindset = an open mindset

“Many people take what they like about themselves and call it a growth mindset. If they’re open-minded or flexible, they say they have a growth mindset.”

“I often hear people calling it an ‘open mindset.’ But there’s a difference between being flexible or open-minded and being dedicated to growing talent. And if people drift away from the actual meaning of a growth mindset, they drift away from its benefits. They can bask in their own wonderful qualities, but they may never do the hard work of cultivating their own abilities or the abilities of their children or students.”

Misunderstanding 2: a growth mindset is just about effort

“Many people believe that a growth mindset is only about effort, especially praising effort. I talked earlier about how praising the process children engage in—their hard work, strategies, focus, perseverance—can foster a growth mindset. In this way, children learn that the process they engage in brings about progress and learning, and that their learning does not just magically flow from some innate ability.”

“The first thing to remember here is that the process includes more than just effort. Certainly we want children to appreciate the fruits of hard work. But we also want them to understand the importance of trying new strategies when one they are using isn’t working. We don’t want them to just try harder with the same ineffective strategy. And we want them to ask for help or input from others when it’s needed.”

“This is the process we want them to appreciate: hard work, trying new strategies, and seeking input from others.”

– Carol Dweck

Put another way, sometimes you need to work smarter, not harder.

“Another pitfall is praising effort or any part of the process that’s not there. More than once parents have said to me, ‘I praise my child’s effort but it’s not working.’ I immediately asked, was your child actually trying hard? ‘Well, not really,’ comes the sheepish reply. We should never think that praising a process that is not there will bring good results.”

Remember, the goal is to nurture positive, productive, persistent children. It’s not just about making kids feel good. Dweck continues:

“But a problem that’s of even greater concern to me is the fact that some teachers and coaches are using effort praise as a consolation prize when kids are not learning. If a student has tried hard and made little or no progress, we can of course I appreciate their effort, but…

“We should never be content with effort that is not yielding to further benefits. We need to figure out why that effort is not defective and guide kids toward other strategies and resources that can help them resume learning.”

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But when it is broken, don’t keep wasting effort for null results. Dweck wants to make sure you get this, because it’s keeping her from sleeping.

“Recently, someone asked me, what keeps you up at night? And I said, it’s the fear that the mindset concept will be used to make kids feel good when they are not learning, just like the failed self-esteem movement. A growth mindset is meant to help kids learn, not to paper over the fact that they are not learning.”

“Finally, when people realize I’m the mindset person, they often say ‘Oh yeah, praise the process not the outcome, right? Well, not quite. This is such a common misconception. In all of our research on praise, we indeed praise the process, but we tie it to the outcome, that is, to children’s learning progress or achievements. Children need to understand that engaging in that process helped them learn.”

“And remember, we don’t have to always be praising. Inquiring about the children’s process and just showing interest in it goes a very long way.”

Misunderstanding 3: “you can do anything”

“Many times I’ve heard educators say, ‘I’ve always had a growth mindset. I always tell my students, you can do anything. Few people believe in children’s potential as much as I do.’ But it doesn’t happen by simply telling them, ‘You can do anything.'”

Dweck then adds the missing ingredients:

“It happens by helping them gain the skills and find the resources to make progress toward their goals. Otherwise, it’s an empty reassurance. It puts the onus entirely on the student and may make them feel like a failure if they don’t reach their goals.”

How do you pass on a growth mindset?

We all want our kids to be smart, confident, and talented. But despite our best intentions, it’s easy to slip into the trap of telling them how good they are rather than emphasizing who they’re becoming. Dweck again reminds us of the counterintuitive principles at play:

“Even parents who hold a growth mindset can find themselves praising their child’s ability, and neglecting to focus on their child’s learning process. It can be hard to shake the idea that telling kids they’re smart builds their confidence.”

Instead, focus on what your kids are putting into the process, and how that’s translating into the outcomes that both you and your child want to see.

Who do you want your children to become? What kind of teacher are you?