The Growth Mindset - and why boys can have a counter-intuitive advantage

In this week's edition of The Journey, a Trinity mum explores the concept of the "growth mindset" and discusses how parents can help their children to develop their own.

“It’s all about, when your kids are having trouble doing something new and they say ‘I can’t do this’ - you say ‘You can’t do it yet’.”

Having lived through a more difficult than expected transition into high school with my eldest son, this recommendation from renowned Australian parenting expert Michael Grose piqued my personal interest. During our recent conversation about the Year 7 transition he also recommended reading the book Mindset by Dr Carol Dweck.

Halfway through reading an early edition I’d picked up in a second-hand bookshop, I told my husband with great urgency: “We have to stop right now telling the kids they’re clever - and good at kicking a football and dancing! We have to instead praise only their effort!”

Like many parents I have often commended my children for what I see as their innate talents, believing - and hoping - it will stop them selling themselves short and push them towards greater achievements - but no more!

What exactly is a “Growth Mindset”?

Dr Dweck is a world-renowned Stanford University psychologist, and her decade-long initial research in the 1980s found that praising intelligence and talent actually jeopardises children’s self-esteem, accomplishment and lifelong enthusiasm for learning.

Such praise, Dr Dwek found, causes a “fixed mindset”.  This leads children - and the adults they become – to believe their basic qualities such as intelligence, creativity, sporting talent or self-control are attributes that are set in stone and cannot be developed.

Those fixed mindset people then spend their time and efforts affirming their talent(s) on pursuits with which they feel more comfortable instead of stretching themselves and further developing their intellect or skills. 

Additionally, fixed mindset people tend to believe that talent alone creates success without hard work.

By contrast people with a “growth mindset” believe that their abilities can evolve through dedication and effort, with brains and talent merely a launch pad for great achievement. 

Mindset – the difference between boys and girls

That all sounds great, I thought. But, having also been on the roller coaster ride of having a child who played a competitive sport at a high level, I was struggling with how to balance encouraging effort with feedback that realistically manages expectations.

That concern prompted a search of Dr Dwek’s online materials and led to some intriguing findings about the differences between boys and girls when it comes to mindset. 

What she found was that bright girls, more so than boys, tend to believe their abilities are innate and unchangeable. Boys, however, believe that they can develop their abilities.

As a mother of two boys and two girls who have all been treated in what is at least intended to be the same gender-neutral manner, the reason for this made perfect sense. 

As Dr Dwek found, girls generally develop self-control earlier and follow instructions better, so are often praised for being “so clever” or “such a good student” at primary school, while the boys fidget and have more trouble focusing at their desks. Boys tend to be given messages by teachers that highlight the importance of focus and effort, such as: “Sit still, pay attention and you might learn this!”

Regardless of the differences between the sexes, Dr Dwek argues that all children need to be praised in a specific manner to encourage a “true growth mindset”, which is detailed in the updated edition of her book I bought after reading about her follow-up research.

She says praising children for effort alone arises from a simplistic understanding of the growth mindset. Simply saying “great effort” can be seen by children as a consolation prize, which they can interpret as meaning their parents, teachers or coaches believe they can’t do any better. 

In all our research on praise we indeed praise the process (and effort) but tie it in with the outcome, that is to children’s learning, progress or achievements,
Dr Dwek says.

“And remember, we don’t have to always be praising. Inquiring about the child’s progress and just showing interest in it goes a very long way.”

Putting it all into practice

So I’m now replacing the quick and easy “that’s great, you’re so good at writing stories/learning your Jolly Phonics sounds” with, for example: “How did you come up with that good idea for a story?” or “What helps you remember your sounds, is it the Jolly Phonics pictures or the songs?”

It takes more time and effort, especially when kids come up to you with something they’ve done at school when I’m trying to juggle various household chores at the end of the working day.

The results aren’t in yet from my own small-scale research, but my new-style “true growth mindset” praise certainly feels more meaningful and sincere - something we all want in our communication with the significant people in our lives. 

And in response to my concern about unrealistic expectations, towards the end of the latest edition of Mindset Dr Dwek says another misconception is that growth mindset means telling your kids they can do anything, which can lead to empty reassurances.

Instead, she says, “it’s about helping them gain the skills and finding the resources to make progress towards their goals” and that the true growth mindset makes children more confident about overcoming setbacks in life.

Dr Dwek says of her own life: “Did changing toward a growth mindset solve all my problems? No. But I know that I have a different life because of it - a richer one. And that I’m a more alive, courageous, and open person because of it.” 

And that’s something worth spending a few more moments on each day to encourage in our children.