Build a growth mindset, celebrate effort, and stop focusing on outcomes

We teach our children thousands of lessons throughout their lives. When they are young, we often try to solve their problems and encourage them to be their authentic selves. As our children become teenagers, many of us become tougher, expecting more in an attempt to prepare them for adulthood.

And then, our kids turn 18 and are released into the world. At that point, we hope the lessons we taught them will be a guiding force as they navigate their young adult lives.

One of the most important and potentially life-altering lessons I try to teach my daughter is to have a growth mindset.

In her seminal book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford Psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck defines a growth mindset as “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts”. No matter the individual, “everyone can change and grow through application and experience”.

In comparison, individuals with a fixed mindset believe” that [their] qualities are carved in stone… [creating] an urgency to prove [one’s] self over and over”. This mindset is often ingrained at a young age, causing children to define themselves by their successes and failures in an almost binary fashion. Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their potential is limited to their natural abilities.

This 3-minute video does a nice job of illustrating and explaining the differences growth and fixed mindsets. I also find this video helps me think about how I can encourage a growth mindset in my own daughter.

Click here if the video doesn’t load properly

Over the years, I tried various methods to teach my daughter about a growth mindset, sometimes to no avail. There are plenty of times when she’s become upset and defeated after making a mistake or receiving a bad grade. Of course this is normal; developing a growth mindset takes time, effort, and patience. I, too, am working on my growth mindset, so I have to remind myself to keep my expectations for my daughter within reason.

I think of how my own parents raised me, being transparent with their faults and never trying to present themselves as “perfect”. I appreciated and respected this so much so that I decided to emulate this parenting style. I stress to her that we should focus primarily on the process, instead of the outcome. Although accepting and embracing your failure’s takes time, doing so can change your perspective (and change your life!).

That said, let’s be honest - few people enjoy failure. Failure is something that we all deal with in our lives, yet many people see failure only as a negative. Actively embracing failure isn’t a common initial reaction, but when implementing a growth mindset, failure can be seen as opportunity.

When I make a mistake, I try to understand what happened, learn from it, and make sure I avoid it moving forward. One of the ways that helps me maintain perspective and do this successfully is to separate the decision making process from the results. It’s natural to assume that good results come from good decisions, and poor results come from poor decisions.

The reality is, you can make a very good decision based on promising data, following a good process, etc., and it may still result in a bad outcome. That doesn’t mean it was a bad decision, it just didn’t turn out as expected.

Former World Series of Poker champion turned business consultant, Annie Duke, explains in her book, “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts”, that great decisions don’t always lead to the expected outcome. If you can switch your thinking to become more comfortable with the results not always turning out as expected, there is a possibility to react less emotionally and more confidently in the long run.

What does it look like when someone, particularly a child, has a growth mindset and fixed mindset? Let’s start with the fixed mindset.

…Imagine a child is trying out a new sport and, in their first game, they do not play all that well and their team loses. Upset and emotional, the child announces they’ll never be any good at the sport, asking to quit immediately and refusing to ever try again.

Although it is perfectly natural for a child to be upset in this situation, it is concerning that the child immediately concludes they will never be good enough and cannot improve. In this case, the child believes their athletic ability is static (or fixed) instead of seeing the potential for improvement over time.

Fortunately, our children do not have to be defined by these feelings. There are ways we can help them see loss as an opportunity and that all of us are able to learn, improve, and grow over time. No, it’s not always easy, but it can be done.

So how do we help our child see this loss as an opportunity? We help them develop a growth mindset!

Let’s take the same example from before and apply a growth mindset.

…This same child is trying out a new sport, and, in their first game, they don’t perform well and their team loses. Although upset and emotional, the child declares that they will have to practice hard to improve! They ask what they should do to get better at the sport, accepting that, although they lost, they can cultivate their abilities.

This is the difference between a fixed and growth mindset: potential for change and improvement.

I want to state that you can have both a fixed and growth mindset! Your mindset can change at any point, taking on one or both characteristics. For example, my daughter is more likely to display a growth mindset with things she really likes doing, such as dance. She seems more accepting of her mistakes and views them as a normal part of the learning process. But Math? Maybe not so much…

If you really want to help your child develop a growth mindset, lead by example. Leading by example is a two-step process, requiring you to not only encourage them (which includes making a conscious effort in how you react to their failures and successes) but also being transparent with your own failures.

Yes, you read that right - I encourage you to be upfront with your mistakes, both past, and present! I’m not suggesting you sit them down and go through every single mistake you’ve made in your life, rather, it’s important for them to learn that not only do we adults make mistakes but also that we are constantly learning too. And when we make mistakes, we own up to them.

It’s also important to think of how you typically react when your child makes mistakes or does not get the results they want. Do you get upset? Do you punish them? Do you try to assess the situation with your child and together, understand what happened?

I’m going to give you another example and ask that you stop and think about how you would react before reading any further.

Your child comes home with a ‘C’ after a big test. Which of the following approaches are you most likely to take?

  • Tough love makes a child stronger - You get frustrated with them (perhaps they should have tried harder or studied more), and ultimately punish them (e.g., no cell phone for 3 days).
  • They’ve done it before and I know they’ll do it again - Tell them it’s okay and they will do better next time because they are smart.
  • They tried and that’s what matters most - Discuss what happened, ask how you can help, and tell them that it’s the effort that counts.

These three reactions tell a child three completely different stories. Answer “A” associates bad grades with punishment and good grades with reward. It may seem like the child is being motivated to succeed, but instead, they may feel judged by their parents. By creating a reward-punishment system that demands success (or even worse, perfection) above all else, the child learns to prioritize the result over the effort. When a child receives only a positive or negative reaction, instead of seeing the many different possibilities available to them, they may believe that there are only two outcomes in life.

Answer “B” may also be problematic because it prioritizes the child’s intelligence. For many of us, it may feel right to praise our kids for being “smart”. I will admit, I have done this myself. Instead of their potential, the child’s natural ability (a static quality) is emphasized and highlighted. While it can be healthy for a child to believe they’re smart, it can go too far, leading the child to think they don’t need to put effort into their work because their natural intelligence will carry them through. A more effective approach is to reward sincere effort.

Finally, we reach answer “C”, a response that leaves room for an open discussion, informs the child that you are a readily available resource, and does not define them by their results. It encourages them to focus on their effort and not the outcome.

Carol Dweck noted that “kids with the fixed mindset [felt that] they [received] constant messages of judgment from their parents. They [said] they [felt] as though their traits [were] being measured all the time”. By measuring their effort, children may be willing to try new things, even if they fail, because they know they have parental support.

Children with a growth mindset may develop essential habits and come to their own conclusion that good grades are tangible. As long as they put effort into studying and are well prepared, the process should repeat similar results. If they are able to apply this same mindset to other aspects of their lives, then, regardless of the outcome, they hopefully won’t fear failure but learn from it!

When my daughter does not get the results she wants, I ask her what she can do differently next time. I encourage her to focus on her process (learning, studying) and remind her she is not defined by the result (the grade). When she gets a good grade on a test or project, I congratulate her for doing such a great job studying and learning. I know my daughter cares about her grades, so I can’t ignore them, rather, it’s just not the primary focus of my feedback.

Even when a child has accomplished something positive, it is important to reinforce their effort over their innate capability. “You are so smart” sends a much different message than “you did such a great job preparing”. We must be vigilant when it comes to using encouraging language that does not define or limit our children’s capabilities.

Developing a growth mindset in a child takes time, but, as long as we try to be open, supportive, and accepting, we may be able to instill an incredibly valuable lesson: potential is exponential, not finite.

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