Growth Mindset Part II: Cultivating It at Home


Growth mindset is the belief that ability and intelligence can be developed. 

In Part I of my growth mindset exploration I offered a definition and overview of the research. Head over there to learn more! This article addresses some playful ways to incorporate it at home - for yourself and your kids. But first, here's a quick list of the BENEFITS of a growth mindset:

  • more resilience in the face of a challenge.
  • counteracts cultural stereotypes that effect how your child thinks about herself and how others interact with her.
  • helps us approach the world with curiosity, openness and a willingness to take chances.
  • helps us enjoy the process of getting there, of learning more, getting better at something, becoming more expert, stretching our brains and bodies into new realms of experience during this strange trip of being human. 

(please note that this list focuses on psychological and social gains rather than test or achievement outcomes)


(1) Failure = Learning

Far and away the #1 influence you can have on your child is through your approach to failure. You can frame and model failure as an opportunity to learn and your child will pick up what you're puttin' down. In this 2016 article, Dweck and colleagues found:

Overall, parents who see failure as debilitating focus on their children's performance and ability rather than on their children's learning, and their children, in turn, tend to believe that intelligence is fixed rather than malleable.

You can normalize failure as a chance to learn. One friend, Abigail, speaks of purposely doing things she's 'bad' at so she can model for her daughter the struggle and the joy of the learning process. This is so hard! As adults we like to be good at things, and frankly, we don't always have the energy to take on the challenge of a beginner's mind. But when we can do this, we show our kids that we can grow and learn.

Most of us don't feel very playful when we're failing. So try this:

  • Embrace the clown. Clowns can be funny (and not scary) because they cut to the heart of our human frailties. Incorporate a prat fall or an exaggerated movement/emotion for the sake of the humor (even if no one is around!). This helps us take ourselves less seriously. When you pretend fail at something and exaggerate it, it can help create a buffer and widen your comfort zone for when you really fail (e.g. when you really slip on the ice you can recall that time you pretended to in front of your kids, and you're less likely to feel self-conscious).

(2) Emphasize strategy

Not all mistakes are equal - there are mistakes that emerge from trying something new and mistakes that come from being tired, distracted or rushed. Depending on the type of mistakes (or 'failure'), you'll frame the ensuing strategy a bit differently. 

"Oops, I just broke that glass because I was in a hurry to empty the dishwasher!" When sloppy, you focus on addressing the fatigue/distraction: "I'm going to slow down and take a breath before I pick up the next glass."

Whereas "Oops, I just broke that glass because I'm trying to juggle for the first time!" is a mistake that comes from trying something totally new. In this instance you can talk about accepting the inevitable challenges that come from trying something new, and then brainstorm a new strategy so no more glasses get broken.

Try playful strategizing:

  • Brainstorming solutions to a mistake/failure can be improvisational and creative. At its core, improv is about saying yes to any idea, not judging it. If you fail at something and want to make explicit the process of trying a new strategy, you can talk it through with your child with a playful attitude: 'Mommy just tried swinging a golf club for the first time and totally missed! Hmm, next time maybe I should swing at something bigger. Or maybe I could try golfing on my knees!'. You get the point. 

(3) Understand the role of emotions in learning

When we are in a heightened emotional state - scared, angry, sad - we are experiencing stress symptoms. Calming techniques are necessary before delving into logical discussions of strategies, brain growth and outcomes. Sometimes distraction as an intentional strategy is a great first step, for yourself or your child (e.g. listening to a favorite song, getting some exercise). Then when you and/or your child is calm, you can decide how (and if) you want to re-visit the situation that led to the strong emotion.

Are you tired or hungry? Was your child? If so, move on. This isn't the time to teach about growth mindset. Were you or your child frustrated by the task? If so, label it and empathize. Then brainstorm strategies to manage frustration and new ideas for completing the task.

One observation I've had of my children is that sometimes they'll have an outburst of frustration "I can't!!!" even while sticking to a task. If I hold off on intervening, I am empowering them to ride the wave of emotions while facing a challenge on their own. It's super easy to jump in, particularly when you have your own goal in mind - like getting out the door! - but when I take the moment to let their process play out, it's turns into my own sort of process training.

Playful emotions:

  • You can incorporate emotions into play. If I'm being a character (like a car), I might have it experience a range of emotions, offering up vocabulary and experiences for me and my children to explore together. It sounds really planned, but actually I just throw it out there and see where it leads. I'm not making fun of an emotional expression, but rather use it as an additional 'character' or experience in our play. Because we are emotional beings! And navigating the complexity of our emotions is a lifelong task. Approaching it with some levity and flexibility helps me to keep perspective (sometimes) when I'm in the middle of a strong emotion. 

(4) Home v. School v. Sports (etc.)

As your child gets older, she spends less time with you and more time with peers and other adults. And we know that peers and other adults (but especially peers for a while) have a strong influence on our kids. In general we may feel less connection with our children as they navigate adolescence.

Part of the wisdom during this time is recognizing how powerful role modeling is, especially over time. While your 14-year-old is unlikely to say she wants to learn to play the pipe flute for the first time because she sees you trying something new, your 24-year-old may appreciate you trying a watercolor painting class and will be inspired to do the same. 

The other part of the wisdom is accepting that we only have so much effect. At the extremes, of course, what we do matters. But if you're reading this it means you strive to create a safe, supportive environment and make an effort to model being a whole person in the world. Genetics plays a role, environment does too, but the science can't tell us the precise balance of the complex variables at work in the well-being of a human. Know your limits and enjoy the ride!

Planting seeds of embracing failure with a playful spirit - in ourselves and our children - is the most we can ask of ourselves.

I love pumpkin seeds!

I love pumpkin seeds!

For further exploration:

Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies

Dweck and her colleagues at Mindsetworks (worth visiting if you have extra time) developed school and home curriculum that cultivate a growth mindset. Below are 2 of their steps for families.

Your Parenting Mojo podcast #61 "Can Growth Mindset Live Up to the Hype?" explores the scientific research on growth mindset. She focuses on the quality of the research, as measured through outcomes in school, rather than the psychological effects.