Book Review: Mindset (Part I – The section for parents, which teachers will also find useful)

24 Mar

“Much of what you think of as your personality actually grows out of your ‘mindset‘,” writes Dr. Carol Dweck in the introduction to Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  “Much of what may be preventing you from fulfilling your potential grows out of it.”

Dr. Dweck defines mindset as the way you view yourself and your life experiences.  People with a fixed mindset believe their personality, intelligence, and talents are set in stone.  They confirm these traits by evaluating their successes and defeats as pass or fail, win or lose.  Fixed-mindset folks are very concerned with how others view them, so they surround themselves with people who will shore up their self-esteem (aka, suck-ups).  Deficiencies are hidden and successes are trumpeted as confirmation of their beliefs.

On the other hand, people who adopt a growth mindset see their traits as the jumping-off point for development.  They believe that effort is the key to growth and conclude that each individual’s potential can only be discovered and reached through dedication, passion, and training.  The growth mindset is evident in people who learn from their mistakes, accept feedback, and stick with it when the going gets rough.  They surround themselves with people who help them grow and discover their potential.

The first 167 pages of Mindset show how the two frames of mind can affect performance, outcomes, and enjoyment in the world of sports, business, and personal relationships.  Dr. Dweck identifies the mindsets of famous (and not-so-famous) people and discusses the impact their viewpoints have on their lives and those of others.  It’s an interesting read, but in the interest of brevity, I’m going to skip to chapter 7 to find out where mindsets originate and how to keep our children on the right track.

“You learned that so quickly!  You’re so smart!”

“Look at that drawing!  Martha, is he the next Picasso or what?”

“You’re so brilliant, you got an A without even studying!”

Apart from the exclamation points, what do these sentences from the book have in common?  They are all supposedly encouraging messages that parents send to boost a child’s self-esteem.  Have you heard similar phrases being used?  Sure, we all have.  Have you uttered them?  Probably, and you had the best intentions in mind (I know I did!).

Unfortunately, here’s what the children hear:

If I don’t learn something quickly, I’m not smart.

I shouldn’t try drawing anything hard or they’ll see I’m no Picasso.

I’d better quit studying or they won’t think I’m brilliant.

How did Dr. Dweck figure out that this is what the children were hearing?  She realized, while conducting seven research studies, that the children she had identified as having a fixed mindset were obsessed with these concepts.  The children would take great pains to prove how smart and talented they were, and would rarely take the opportunity to learn something new during the research studies if it meant stepping outside their comfort zone.  It stands to reason that the more we insist on praising these qualities, the more obsessed they will be with proving them true.  The problem comes when they hit a bump in the road. To the fixed mindset children, “if success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb,” explains Dr. Dweck bluntly.

At this point you must be thinking: Well, if I can’t praise my child, then what do I say to let her know she’s on the right path? Dr. Dweck suggests that we praise “the growth-oriented process”.  In other words, put into words what the child has accomplished through hard work, practice, and good strategies.

“I see you’ve been practicing your cursive handwriting.  I can tell you are being very careful about spacing your words.”

“You chose many beautiful colors to make that picture.  Can you tell me about it?”

“I noticed that you rolled the apron very neatly and cleaned the protector before putting it back on the tray!  Thank you for keeping our materials tidy.”

If improper praise hurts children, improper criticism is the nail on the coffin of the fixed mindset.  Sure, we all want to provide what the corporate world euphemistically calls “feedback for success”, but most of what we consider constructive criticism is heavy on judgment and light on support.  In Mindset, we’re reminded that constructive means “helping the child to fix something, build a better product, or do a better job.”  Therefore, our approach should be empathic and should open doors towards success.  For example, if a child does a sloppy job on a test and misses a few questions, dad could ask: “Son, is there something that wasn’t clear to you when you prepared for the test?  Do you want to go to the library to do some more research or would you feel more comfortable asking your teacher for additional review material?”  Hitting the roof and grounding the boy is not the right approach here!

Dr. Dweck’s research also confirmed that the fixed mindset stems from a situation where parents place conditions on their approval.  All parents want the best for their children, but what if your child’s idea of “best” is different from yours?  Most people (including yours truly) have faced conditional approval from their parents in some aspect of their lives: academic, professional, social, or cultural.  Most of the time, parents pass judgment unknowingly, thinking that they are setting up their child for a future of happiness by pushing for their own ideals of success.

In Mindset, we learn that some ideals are helpful while others can do terrible harm.  Growth-mindset parents encourage their children to choose a career that will have a positive impact on society or remind them to choose a romantic partner that will respect and support them emotionally.  Fixed-mindset parents will let their child know that they expect her to be a doctor or want him to marry a beauty queen.  Which ideals work best?  Those that provide respect for the child’s individuality, offer inspiration, and allow the child to slowly work towards the goal.

At the end of the chapter, we are challenged to “Grow Our Mindset”.  Dr. Dweck suggests:

“Tomorrow, listen to what you are saying to your kids and tune in to the messages you’re sending.  Are they messages that say: You have permanent traits and I am judging them? Or are they messages that say: You’re a developing person and I’m interested in your development?”

I’m ready to take this challenge!!  Will you take it with me in the next few days and post your honest thoughts? (Anonymous comments are welcome!)

“Mindset” was written by Carol S. Dweck, Ph. D. and is published by Random House. Copyright 2006.

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4 Responses to “Book Review: Mindset (Part I – The section for parents, which teachers will also find useful)”

  1. Anna March 25, 2010 at 4:42 pm #

    I find this very interesting. I’ll have a go at home and at school and let you know where it takes me.

    I’ll be particularly interested to see if it changes any behaviour that I have unconsciously been facilitating.

  2. Katelyn March 25, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

    I am not yet a parent (my first is due in July), but I am very intrigued by the growth vs. fixed differentiation. I can see in myself how the different types of praise shaped me as a person growing up, especially as to how I interact with my parents on an individual level. (I know there a several issues intertwined here beyond the fixed vs. growth mindset, but I’d still like to share this.)

    My parents divorced when I was very very young (both later remarried.)

    In my mother’s household (my primary residence) trying new experiences and doing your best was the name of the game. The end product was not as important as the effort put forth.

    In my father’s household (a rather dysfunctional household compared to my mother’s) I was always praised and uplifted as the “smart” child. My father always acted amazed at my abilities and I was very much put on a pedestal. When introduced to his work colleges or friends, I was always described as the straight ‘A’ child.

    In my mother’s house I knew that I was expected to use my abilities but “failure” at a task would not result in negative judgment. It would be met with either help (if I asked for it), or a try again later response. I never felt like my worth as a person was diminished in anyway by my failures.

    In my father’s house, I felt pressured to maintain the ‘perfect child’ facade. I remember being so anxious before telling him about my 88 in math on my report card in 5th grade. I very much felt like my worth to him as a daughter was dependent on my stellar academic performance.

    When I was in high school, my father and I had a falling out after I came to the realization that I was tired of desperately seeking his praise in order to feel loved. Eight years later, we have a decent relationship, but I am careful to keep my emotional self protected when around him. My mother and I have a wonderful supportive relationship for which I am so grateful. I hope to be the type of parent my mother was to me when I have my own children.

    I’m sorry this is so long, but reading your post really contributed another level to my understanding and processing of my childhood relationships with my parents as individuals.

  3. Thomasin March 26, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    This hits home! I struggled with my “smartness” when I was younger, possibly due to feeling judged as the infamous “perfect student” rather than feeling encouraged to explore, create, and fail [and then, presumably, learning from the mistakes]. As an adult it’s difficult to reset those ideas, even though it may be important to do so, for the sake of your sanity and that of your kiddos. 😉 Thank you for the book review. I think this is one I may check-out.

    ~Thomasin

  4. Marcy March 27, 2010 at 6:12 pm #

    A few months back I read Po Bronson’s book NurtureShock! and in it he has a whole chapter on praise, where he discusses all this research he’s found that basically says the same as what you’ve shown here. It’s astounding. Ever since reading that, I’ve tried very hard to be conscious of the ways I praise my son. It’s so, so hard not to tell him, “You are so smart!” because I really do think he is,. and so many things come to him so easily… so it’s a hard habit to break!! But I’ve made it a personal goal to focus on the process, and show him that any skill takes hard work, very little is innate or unchangeable.

    (here’s that whole chapter published online: http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/ )

    Interestingly, since reading that book I’ve tried to show this way of thinking about praise to many friends and family members, and it’s amazing how shocking it is to their system, how defensive they get about changing their mental paradigm about the benefits of praise. They’ll fight tooth and nail that this approach “doesn’t make sense.”

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