Parenting with a Growth Mindset

In the last few years there has been increased buzz in education about growth vs fixed mindset. Carol Dweck, a psychologist, has led the research into the impact of one’s mindset on performance and achievement. She identified two types of mindsets: growth mindset and fixed mindset. Dr. Dweck identified that individuals with a growth mindset associate effort with improvement. These individuals believe they can improve. When faced with a challenge, they push forward, exert more effort, and sustain that effort until they make progress. They make mistakes and continue to try. Individuals with a fixed mindset don’t equate effort with improvement; they believe their abilities are fixed and cannot be improved. These individuals are more likely to stop trying when they have to exert effort in a task, or become overly frustrated. They have thoughts such as, if you have to try, then you are not and never will be good at “it.”  

Most people have a combination of fixed and growth mindset, triggered by the situation/task. For example, you may have a growth mindset about math. You generally believe that if people work hard at math, they will eventually master, maybe even excel, in the subject. You approach math problems with the attitude to learn. On the other hand, you may believe that artistic talent, musical talent, or sports ability is set, something you either have or you don’t; effort won’t change your ability much. The saying “You either have it or you don’t” comes to mind. That is a fixed mindset.

Many parents try to encourage a growth mindset, whether they know it or not. Long before growth mindset was identified as a thing, my parents, and probably yours too, encouraged learning from mistakes, and used sayings such as “you only get out what you put in” to encourage effort. The tricky part is, as parents we don’t always react to our child’s mistakes, developmental delays, or individual difficulties from a growth mindset. We say things like, “he just doesn’t get math” or “she has never been good at making friends” or “that is just how he is.” These types of statements don’t relay that we think there is potential. They can be therapeutic from an acceptance of deficits point of view, but they also subtly relay that we think that skill/trait is fixed.

Encouraging a growth mindset in your child is much easier in theory than in practice. We read about growth mindset, remind our children using growth-oriented statements such as “You can do hard things,” encouraging learning from mistakes, etc. However, when your child brings home a 65% on a test, the mindset often switches from growth to fixed. At that point, mistakes are not something to be learned from, effort is not something to be encouraged, and we bring down the hammer with upset voices and threaten consequences until they bring their grade up (guilty!). We have to actually believe (or act “as if” we believe) what we are advocating and practice it in our parenting in order for it to trickle down to our children. Model learning from mistakes in your own lives, practice giving your child and yourself grace when mistakes are made, and put forth effort in areas that are hard. Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.

Parenting from a growth-mindset is hard (coming from this frequently fixed-mindset-in-my-personal-life individual). I have found that mantras help me remember that growth is a process. These help me find patience, grace, and perseverance in parenting, when my mind is definitely in a “fixed” place. You have probably seen the little posters encouraging effort and praising imperfections in schools. I have found sayings that help me find effort and focus in parenting. I am sharing mine below – I encourage you to find ones that help you “walk the walk.”

“Yet” – Carol Dweck

Yet is such a powerful word. “Yet” conveys in one word the entire thought that something is happening, it just hasn’t happened…yet. In my own self-talk about parenting, “yet” helps me quickly reframe my fixed thinking to growth mindset thinking. I tag on “yet” at the end of a statement about deficits and it immediately helps me reframe. For example, “he doesn’t say hi to his friends” becomes “he doesn’t say hi to his friends, yet.” The “yet” helps us remember that this skill is developing and reminds us to put forth effort in helping develop that area.

“Comparison is the thief of joy” –  Theodore Roosevelt

A fixed mindset inherently compares yourself to a standard. Comparisons rob your ability to feel happy in the moment because you lose sight of the good of the moment and focus on the deficits. This saying helps me remember to focus on the person in front of me; to appreciate growth and continue to facilitate further growth.

“Remember the oak tree inside the acorn” – Unknown

This helps me remember that the purpose of parenting is to help our child become their best version of themselves. They may be small now, but parenting the oak tree instead of the acorn reminds me of the bigger picture of parenting and helps pull me from a fixed mindset to the place where mistakes and effort mean growth.

“The impediment to action advances action. What is standing in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius

This one has been my call to arms in my own child’s difficulties. It makes me feel like obstacles are meant to be overcome. To help my child come through his obstacles, we have to go through them. This reminds me to be present in therapeutic activities, play, etc. It reminds me that growth comes because we are going through the obstacles, not stopped by them. There is a whole book written about this one, but I like the quote itself best.

If you want to learn more about growth mindset, I encourage you to read Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, as well as look into Brock and Hundley’s The Growth Mindset Coach and Phrases for Growth Mindset.

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