In the book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, the author Dr. Dweck goes over stories and studies reviewing the difference between people with a fixed mindset—people who believe that something is an innate characteristic—and a growth mindset—people who believe that with hard work, you can become more skilled at anything.
In the book, Dweck goes over how people develop fixed mindsets. You can prime people to get into one or the other easily. You can tell people that a skill is natural (fixed), or that it can be developed (growth). You can praise them for their ability or talent (fixed) instead of their hard work and effort (growth).
The worst effect of the fixed mindset is that effort becomes a bad. Effort is for people who aren’t naturally smart, who aren’t naturally gifted at sports, or naturally talented at art. To do well means to be good, effortlessly. If you put in the effort and you fail, it proves that you aren’t smart or aren’t talented. It doesn’t just mean that you haven’t done well, or that you need to try harder.
This leads people to do everything they can to defend their views of themselves, which means forgoing challenges and learning opportunities and opting for the sure-thing. Why challenge yourself when the best outcome is to prove something everyone already knows—that you’re smart or strong or artistically talented—and the worst is to show that you’re not and never were?
Having a fixed mindset means responding poorly to criticisms, shutting down communication, acting elitist, and feeling that you are less worthy when others show competence. It means valuing revenge over forgiveness, ignoring faults and flaws, and blaming outside forces when things don’t go your way.
Most people have a fixed mindset for somethings and a growth mindset for others; we might oscillate between one and the other depending on the day. I may have a fixed mindset regarding intelligence but a growth mindset in relation to artistic abilities.
This research done by Dweck is what motivates people to try to abstain from praising their children. I try to, but find it challenging.
The good news is that the common interpretation of the research is wrong. It isn’t that you can’t praise. It means that you have to praise them in a different way. You praise them for dedication, for effort, for perseverance, for growth; not for their accomplishments and abilities. You can also ask them questions about what they’ve done to acknowledge and validate their efforts.
Better still, the research all points to another heartening fact: praising your children isn’t doing permanent, irreversible damage. People have changed their mindsets on this issue many times, over many different fields. People change it quickly in a lab setting, and over time as they find that it isn’t serving them. The author even has tips to begin changing your mindset today if you want.
Would it be better to praise in a way that facilitates growth from the start and then only in that way? Sure, that would be beautiful. It seems that people who are in a fixed mindset end up very defensive. They covet their crown, and it leads to disconnection. Failure feels mortifying because it calls into question their worthiness as a person.
It is very natural to us to praise endlessly. We believe it helps confidence. But it doesn’t.
But sometimes my child really is just the smartest child in the world.
Still, I think we can lean towards these more productive compliments. It is much harder to not praise at all than it is to praise differently.
The more ingrained the concept of innate characteristics reigns in your family, the harder it will be to find it and root it out, but it can be changed at any time. Each time your child shows you something, it is another opportunity to set the stage for a growth mindset.
- What is something that I used to be bad at, but am now good at after hard work?
- What abilities do I think are fixed?
- Catch yourself giving destructive praise 5 times this week, and turn it into constructive praise.