Your child races over to you with a huge smile on their face bursting to tell you about their recent success. Filled with feelings of delight and relief, you naturally find yourself showering your child with praise – “well done”, “you’re so smart”, “you’re a clever girl”, “you aced it”, “wow first place”, and so you go on…
At first thought, it’s easy to think that such praise will communicate how proud you are of their success and motivate them to do well in the future. However, research into human motivation suggests that this may not be the case, and that lauding a child’s abilities may actually be more of a hindrance than a help to future success.
Carol Dweck from Stanford University has spent over 30 years studying motivation, and argues that whether people see their abilities as fixed or malleable has a profound effect on how successful they are.
As outlined in the below graph, a person with a fixed mindset about their abilities tends to orient themselves to tasks that make them look talented, and avoid or give up during challenging situations. People with fixed mindsets also tend to see effort and feedback as fruitless, because after all they believe that it is innate ability that determines success.
Comparatively, those who believe that their abilities are malleable (growth mindset) tend to take on challenging tasks that promote skill development, and use effort to overcome difficulties.
There is an increasing amount of research to back these claims. Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck (2007) tracked the mathematic results of a group of students over the challenging transition from primary to high school. They found that whilst there was no difference in the mathematic scores of students with growth or fixed mindsets of intelligence when they entered high school, those students with a growth mindset significantly outperformed their fixed mindset counterparts two years later.
These results suggest that in a supportive, less failure-prone environment such as primary school, vulnerable students may be buffered against the consequences of a fixed mindset of intelligence. However, when the work becomes more challenging and independent, those students are less equipped to triumph.
Fortunately for parents and educators, both Blackwell and her colleagues (2007) and Joshua Aronson from New York University and his collaborators (2002), have demonstrated that students who are taught about the malleability of intelligence tend to show increased motivation to learn and test achievement scores.
Parents wanting to try to foster a malleable mindset in their children would be best to focus on the processes their child used rather than the outcome. For example,
“I’m really proud of the way you persisted with those difficult homework questions”
“Congratulations on your swimming carnival results, all that training has really paid off”
“You seem to be hitting more balls off the centre of your racket, what have you been working on?”
For more information on this topic, Carol Dweck’s text, ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’, would be a useful resource.