At age 4, Liam Chin loves attending preschool. He looks forward to seeing his friends and says music and outdoor play are his favourite parts of the day. Little Liam is also popular with his teachers, who describe him as a bright kid and adore his cheeky laughter.
However, his parents are always told during the bi-annual parent-teacher meeting that their son tends to give up too quickly when he faces a challenge. It can be as minor as using a pair of scissors to cut out shapes.
His mum Janice Chin, 32, notes, “I’ve noticed even at home when he’s playing, Liam gives up on things quickly like when he’s doing a puzzle. He gets frustrated and says he can’t do it. Sometimes, we cajole him into trying again, but it’s not often that he gives it another go.”
Liam’s parents are worried because they’ve noticed this trait emerge quite often. Chin says, “Life is going to throw him many curve balls and I don’t want him to give up too quickly ― if not, he’ll never succeed. Since he is still so young, I feel there is time to change this, but don’t know where to start.”
“Adopting a fixed mindset places one in a comfortable position where failure can be easily accepted as it would be attributed to the fact that one is not ‘gifted’ in a particular area.”
Giving up vs persevering
Contrary to popular belief, being a success is not about being the best at everything. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, according to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. After decades researching the concept of achievement, she coined the term growth mindset. This refers to the belief that your abilities and talents are not innate or “fixed”, but can be developed over time through hard work and learning.
Everyone is born with a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, notes Cheryl Ng, principal trainer at Focus on the Family Singapore. This combination is intended to evolve with life experiences.
Here’s an interesting fact: We are all born with naturally inquisitive natures that becomes more apparent at toddlerhood, which explains why toddlers are game to try anything without respecting the boundaries or danger. When we, the adults, restrict our kids from venturing beyond their boundaries, it can stop them from developing a growth mindset, Ng points out.
Incidentally, adopting a fixed mindset over a growth mindset is much easier, since the latter requires more energy and effort than most people are willing to invest. Some are also content to stick to a fixed way of thinking and doing things because they fear that the alternative may trigger criticism, unfavourable comparison, failure, insecurity or defensiveness.
“Whether consciously or unconsciously, adopting a fixed mindset places one in a comfortable position where failure can be easily accepted as it would be attributed to the fact that one is not ‘gifted’ in a particular area,” Ng notes. “On the other hand, a growth mindset would challenge one to overcome their shortcomings and find a way out of them.”
Benefits of a growth mindset
Adopting a growth mindset can pave the way for a lifetime of success, since you’ll be equipped with all the key skills you’ll need to motivate yourself ― and others ― through life’s many road blocks. Benefits include:
1. GRIT You emerge from your comfort zone with passion and perseverance to achieve your long-term goal. In her TED Talk, teacher turned psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth explains grit eloquently. “Grit is sticking with your future day in, day out ― not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. And working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Today, grit is considered to be as important as IQ and socioeconomic status.
2. ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE What does growth mindset have to do with book smarts? It’s your ability to understand that anything, including academics, can be improved through hard work and by making an effort, says Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre. In the classroom, these are the students who engage with their teachers a lot and never stop asking questions. “It is important to note that academic achievement is not the only avenue towards success, nor the most accurate barometer of a child’s talent,” Ng points out. “However, excellence in interests and activities can be the result of the resilience built.”
3. READY TO TAKE ON CHALLENGES These are the individuals who recognise that success is a journey. They see challenges as an opportunity to learn, using it as a tool for self-improvement instead of avoiding it at all cost for fear of feeling overwhelmed, says Koh. Being diligent and resilient in the face of failure also encourages some to seek new challenges because they know the reward of acquiring a new ability is worth the risk.
How to encourage a growth mindset in your child
Although most of us gravitate towards a fixed mindset, the good news is that a growth mindset can be developed in everyone, regardless of their age or where they are in their life.
“Encouraging a growth mindset is about changing perspectives and the willingness to step up to challenges,” says Ng. So, if you’re ready to give your child the gift of growth, here are some things you can start doing today. This is one of the best things you can do for them as a parent.
1. Praise wisely
Stop praising intelligence or talent. Not only does it not work, it can create praise-hungry individuals who are constantly looking for validation in their work. Fear of not getting any, or being a disappointment, can prevent them from adopting a growth mindset. Instead, “Praise the process the kids engage in, their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement,” says Dweck in her TED Talk. “This process praise creates kids who are hardy and resilient.”
It also leads to progress, Ng notes, because the improvement comes from an intentional effort of applying new approaches. She gives an easy example: Don’t say “You’re so clever”, but “You studied so hard for those grades.”
2. Let your kids fail
Failure is the stepping stone to success. By allowing your kids to fail, you’re teaching them to embrace it as part of life and not be afraid of it. “When they fail, it’s merely an opportunity to learn to do better,” Ng states. “We [parents] should however ensure that we set realistic expectations and take caution against setting them up for failure.” And because kids are always looking for validation in their parents, remember that how you react to your child’s failure can make all the difference in how they perceive failure.
“Praise the process the kids engage in, their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement. This process praise creates kids who are hardy and resilient.”
3. Embrace the word “yet”
“Just the words ‘yet’ or ‘not yet’, we're finding, give kids greater confidence and give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence,” Dweck says. Just by using that word “yet” you’re changing your mindset into believing that while you’ve not been able to achieve a skill, but it’s not the end and you can keep on trying. In fact, in one of Dweck’s studies, students were taught that every time they pushed out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections. Over time, it made the students smarter.
4. Set small goals
Life is all about working towards goals. Achieving one within a realistic timeline will motivate you to put in more effort to achieve the next ― and the next, and the next. Keep the goals realistic, so your kid can pursue and achieve them, Koh says. Ng offers an example, “Instead of practise hard and you will get your music diploma in eight years, it should be ― let’s practise till we can play this song with the right tempo.”
5. Encourage them to ask questions
There are no wrong questions, only people who are too scared to ask any for fear of looking and sounding silly. The beauty of asking questions is the knowledge retrieval and learning that comes from it. “Guide them [the kids] to ask the right questions, about goals, process, learning, improvement,” Ng suggests.
6. Don’t be so fixated on grades
While grades are a testament to growth and learning, reading too much into them isn’t good either. If your child’s biggest goal is getting the next A, he or she will never try a new learning method, or take an unknown subject for fear of not doing well. For a kid who’s getting low scores, being compared to others will make them feel like a constant failure, a title they will wear for the rest of their lives. Encourage a more active learning environment instead, where effort is rewarded, and everyone is able to identify with their own learning styles. This will set them up for a lifelong love of learning instead of the short-term goal of getting good grades.
In case you missed these…