I met a mother recently who told me she had read Mindsets. The New Psychology of Success, 5 years ago when she was pregnant with her first child. The book had a profound impact on her parenting and she had resolved to develop a Growth Mindset in her new daughter.
She told me that as her daughter grew she was careful about how she praised her. She focused on praising effort, growth and persistence. She explained to me how she’d reward the process, the trials and development of her young daughter. She avoided comparisons and focused on how much her daughter was growing in her abilities.
Confident that I could see where this story was going I was ready to hear all about how her child was benefitting from her Growth Mindset. But the story took an unexpected twist when she told me that her daughter was, in fact, the most fixed mindset child she’d ever met!
I was confused. How could a child raised with the kinds of messages Carol Dweck advocates possibly become so fixed in her views? Is it possible she was just born with a fixed mindset and it was going to take a long time to “correct” that?
The problem, it turns out, wasn’t in what her mother was doing. Nor was her child born with a fixed mindset. The way the mother told the story, the problem lay with the grand parents, who would constantly praise their grandchild for being so clever, artistic, smart and generally wonderful!
Just imagine for a minute, if you’re five years old, faced with the messages from one set of significant adults telling you are, and the other telling you that you need to do stuff to become… which would be the more attractive message?
You see, we’re not born with a Mindset. It’s not part of our genetics. We do not inherit it. Neither do our parents, or anyone else, give us our mindset. We catch our Mindset from the sum total of our lived experiences. For example:
Our Grand Parents praise us for being smart. Our parents praise us for not giving up, even though we couldn’t do it straight away. We hear our parents saying that they could never play music, but at preschool we learnt how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb on the xylophone. We hear our brother talking about how he couldn’t spell, until his teacher showed him how to remember some rules then he got 20/ 20 for his spelling.
Each experience carries with it a message about abilities. Some of them reinforce that we are capable of growth. Others reinforce that people are fundamentally different and limited. It’s the sum total of these messages, and others, that can determine our overall mindset.
We watch Play School and hear how different people are. Some are doctors, some are painters, some are athletes. And without being told how they became that way, we are left to wonder what sort of person we’ll grow up to be, rather than what person we want to become.
We are not born with a Mindset. We catch it. The mindset we find ourselves with at any point in time is the sum total of a mix of factors. Some growth oriented, some carrying a more fixed message. Some we pay more attention to, so have more impact on us. As parents and educators it’s important that we are sending growth oriented messages, and doing our best to correct the fixed messages children may receive, in order that they develop a strong, robust, growth mindset.