Growth Mindset Part I: Deepening our Understanding

Growth mindset is a buzzword we hear as parents. But what it means, precisely, and how to cultivate it is a bit hazy. For example, what to say when my son is emphatic that he can't draw a dog without my help? Or, my daughter refuses to try out for the volleyball team because she's afraid she won't make it? 

This is such a big topic I've divided the post into two parts so we can tackle it with a growth mindset. Part I offers definitions and exploration, and Part II will provide specific - and sometimes playful - ways to cultivate it. 

Growth mindset is both charmingly simple and complex. The research is evolving, but we know it's a helpful mental tool to use when facing challenges. So let's begin with a definition:

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


Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck defined this concept after studying why some children give up more easily than others. She found a common attitude among those who either gave up easily or didn't even try, for fear of failure. Ultimately, those who feared failure did so because they held a fixed mindset, a belief that their ability is inherent and therefore failure would reflect poorly on their core being. On the other hand, those who saw challenges and failure as an opportunity to learn tended to stick with challenges longer and try new things more often. 

Why does growth mindset matter?


Our mindset - attitude - is like putting on a pair of glasses and can effect how we see and approach every area of our life. 

Putting on growth mindset glasses helps us be more resilient in the face of a challenge. When we can hold onto a growth mindset we bounce back and persevere more readily through stumbles. This can particularly make a difference in our mental health.

For example, anxious teens taught a brief growth mindset lesson significantly improved their anxiety and depressive symptoms, a result that held over 9 months with just a single intervention. And college students who feel under particular scrutiny, such as women in STEM, first-generation college students, or African-Americans in the Ivy League have had positive health and achievement outcomes when given a growth mindset intervention

Growth mindset can counteract cultural stereotypes that effect how your child thinks about herself and how others interact with her. (Bringing to mind my own youth, always wanting to prove how fast I ran even though I was a girl). By the way, did you know that girls at age 6 already have gendered beliefs about intelligence?


And a growth mindset helps us approach the world with curiosity, openness and a willingness to take chances. We see opportunity rather than roadblock, new terrain to explore rather than scary drop-offs.

And hey, skeptics! Yeah you over there ('cause I'm one, too!). It's not about fooling ourselves that we are infinitely malleable or have boundless potential to be great at everything. Rather it's about focusing on enjoying 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. 

Okay, so what can parents do? 


We affect our child's mindset from a young age. Through modeling and feedback we create family values around how to face challenges. When a child grows up in a family that values learning and effort, they will more easily shift into a flexible, learning state when faced with challenges. Challenges like, say having a hard time learning to button a shirt. Or when struggling to figure out a difficult friend situation in middle school. 

But growth mindset is transient. As Dweck reflects, we all have our fixed versus growth mindset tendencies and triggers. We can take note of when we fall into a fixed mindset. And then decide if we want to put on our growth mindset glasses. We can also take note of when our kids tend to fall into a fixed mindset (spoiler alert - it may happen a lot and there's no need for alarm!). Just begin to notice it.

Growth Mindset Part II will tackle specific - and playful - ways parents can cultivate growth mindset in their families.

In the meantime, here are some questions to consider:

In what areas of your life do you tend to believe your ability is fixed, and in what areas do you think you are more malleable?

Is there something you've avoided trying because you're afraid you'll be bad at it or fail?

Is there an area of your child's life that she consistently avoids because of fear of failure? 

Have a reflection or story to share? Tell me about it!