If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.
– Carol Dweck, American professor of psychology and one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation
Last Thursday at El Cerrito High School, Stanford professor and educator Carol Dweck told an audience comprising mainly parents and educators that we need to nurture our children and students, respectively, as learners who can grow and continue to grow as a result of our experiences with struggling, working through conflicts, and overcoming challenges. She warned that praising our children’s intelligence and ability doesn’t foster self-esteem; in fact, her research shows that such praise leads them to believe that they don’t have to work hard because they’ll get by on their smarts and natural ability. When faced with hardship, they flee or shut down because having to work hard will expose them as frauds – they’re not smart after all – in their minds and in the eyes of everyone around them. Studies show that fear of failure often trumps the desire to invest in the effort to overcome obstacles.
Dweck noted that the self-esteem movement, which instructed parents and teachers to praise kids and tell them how smart they are at every opportunity, is responsible for this “fixed mindset” mentality. Telling kids that they’re smart or they’re natural athletes also feeds into this mindset that your intelligence and skills are set for life. Research shows that they are far from set. When exposed to new stimuli, our brains reorganize neural pathways, making learning, struggles, and different experiences wonderful opportunities for our brains to grow. In order for new knowledge to be retained in memory, changes in the brain representing new knowledge must occur. In other words, you can’t grow unless you’re exposing yourself to different experiences, challenges, and struggles, and taking risks. That’s the thesis of Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which was first published in 2006 to wide acclaim and embraced by preschools and schools across the country since its release.
Abandoning the non-learner mindset
While I constantly tell the kids that few things in life are easy and if they were life would surely be boring, I am guilty of this learner/non-learner mindset. Case in point: my daughter has loved animals since she was a toddler. Many people have commented through the years that Isabella’s calling ought to be as a veterinarian, given her compassion toward all animals and the solutions she seeks for protecting or rescuing animals in danger. I thought this would be her path, too, until David and I saw her struggle in the primary grades with math and science. I worried that either she had a learning disability or just didn’t have the knack for math because she would go over concepts time and again that seemed, at least to me, fairly easy to grasp for her age and abilities. I was alarmed when she was forgetting and relearning multiplying and dividing fractions throughout one academic year. I consoled myself with the fact that Jacob got the engineering side from David – he loves building and he excels in math and science – and Isabella got her creativity from me. She has a wonderful imagination, loves to tell and write stories, and is stronger academically in language arts. The trait that I love the most about her, however, is her compassion for all living things and her sense of stewardship of the earth. Oh well, I thought to myself, although she’s “weak” in math and science, she doesn’t have to be a vet to take care of animals.
Dweck would have smacked me for shutting the doors and closing the windows. For one thing, who knows if Isabella is even interested in pursuing such a career. But more importantly, I’ve just labeled her a non-learner with fixed intelligence and skills, incapable of taking difficult math and sciences classes required of pre-vet majors in undergraduate school and soldiering on. Again, Dweck pointed to research that supports the brain’s capacity to grow through challenges and hard work. While she noted that not everyone can be Einstein, even Einstein had to put in years of hard labor to become who he was. Dweck acknowledged that you can have a fixed mindset in one area and a growth mindset in another, but the bottom line is that you shouldn’t shut doors. You should encourage and support. You should validate that hard work pays off. Her advice to teachers to give to students – “I have complete faith in your ability to learn and grow, and we will work with you until that happens” – is a promise that parents can offer in the home.
Grades and working hard
Dweck would also point out that my emphasis on grades is wrong-headed. And I admit that she’s right. I didn’t use to nag about grades in elementary school or even middle school. I emphasized working hard, making learning fun and interesting, being your own advocate, and getting organized. But once Jacob entered high school, suddenly everything changed – with the changes coming from me. I warned him at the end of eighth grade that once he hit ninth grade, “grades mattered.” There was no turning back now. If he wants to get into one of the higher-ranking University of California schools – and I’m not even talking about the stratospherically-out-of-league Cal or UCLA campuses – he has to work for A’s. An 88 on a Spanish test, which he thought was pretty good, was not acceptable to me. I’ll admit that I was aghast that he accepted that score because to me it were beneath a good, conscientious student’s standards. What I really should have asked him was whether he learned something from studying and taking the test. Did he retain any of the Spanish words, phrases, sentences, or meanings? Did he learn how to prepare himself better for the next test?
Since he entered high school this past fall, I’ve struggled internally over putting too much emphasis on grades. I sincerely want him first and foremost to be a critical thinker, writer, and reader because ultimately these are the skills that will serve all college students well, no matter what they major in, and all adults in their working world and for the rest of their lives. I don’t hesitate to point out to him how his English papers can be written more clearly, logically, succinctly, and thoughtfully. I must be making headway in this area because he shocked me by thanking me for my help on his last essay for his cultural geography class. I mark up the usual grammatical errors and words that spellcheck missed. But I also ask questions about some of his statements, which force him to think more deeply about what he had written, what he unwittingly had left out, and what he was trying to say. Dweck pointed out that if you focus on working hard and overcoming challenges, you appreciate your accomplishments more, it inspires you to continue on that path of persistence, you gain more confidence in your abilities, your brain’s neural pathways light up like firecrackers (my words, not hers), and you end up earning good grades as a by-product.
When I was in college, I cared about grades, but I cared more about loving what I was doing in my classes and soaking it all in – reading great and minor works of literature, analyzing these works through literary criticism, writing short stories and poems and sharing and critiquing the original works of my classmates, and discovering Asian-American history within our country’s history. I truly loved learning for the sake of learning. I couldn’t imagine majoring in anything but English; if I had gone into nursing or business, which were areas of study my mother had gently pushed for, I would have been miserable. So I followed my passion and that’s what I tell my kids to do.
Despite my lapses in parental judgment regarding grades, I have been sharing with my kids my stories of working hard and struggling with the hope that they’ll appreciate how I learned and grew from these experiences and apply perseverance in their own lives. For example, it took me 17 years to write my first novel and not abandon it when so many things, such as my job and other obligations, kept me from writing. When I sent out a version of my novel back in 2005, I was crushed by the tens of rejections from literary agents, and I let the rejections shut me down for several years. But my passion wouldn’t allow me to remain silent, and nearly three years after the last rejection letter of not writing or reading fiction, I picked myself up off the shoulder of the road and started writing again. And in those years, in those struggles and dark days, I became a better writer – better than when I started on the novel in 1998 and when I sent out the manuscript in 2005. These are the stories I need to remember to keep telling when my first thought is to ask Jacob about his grades when we talk about school at the dinner table.
The Beauty and promise of ‘yet’
One of the things I appreciated from Dweck’s talk was the beauty of “yet.” Instead of looking at a low grade on a test as a failure, we should view it as a concept or a subject matter that they haven’t learned yet. Instead of saying, “I’m not a math person,” we should say, “I’m not a math person yet.” Last night, Jacob told me that math hasn’t been fun since seventh grade, which I had noticed but tried to ignore. He complained that concepts were becoming more difficult for him to grasp and by the time he understands them, the test has already been administered. I quickly thought of Dweck. I dutifully told him that when he comes to understand the concept and solve the math equation, he’ll appreciate the victory more and feel a greater sense of pride because he struggled and pushed through to the other side. Persistence won over apathy. And then, breaking the spell of that revelation, that epiphany, David piped in that opening up the textbook doesn’t hurt, either.
As for Isabella, who knows if going to vet school is something she will want to pursue when she’s 18 years old? It might be the furthest thing on her mind when she’s filling out college applications six years down the road. I just want to make sure that the reason she doesn’t want to go – especially if it’s her passion – isn’t because the path is too hard. That’s where mindset parenting needs to step up: embrace the struggle and believe in the promise of and the journey to “yet.” And know that we parents, who are also continuing to learn and grow, are supporting our kids – all the way to the moon and back.