Life is hard sometimes. For young kids who are learning new skills and trying new sports, success can be rare. All kids fail at some point, so how should adults respond to their failure in a way that promotes learning and resilience?
Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, has built her career on research that answers that question. She studies children’s views of intelligence and ability, and has discovered that children usually fall into one of two categories: they either have a fixed mindset, and believe intelligence and ability is fixed and cannot be changed, or they have a growth mindset, and believe intelligence and ability can be developed with hard work and help. Children with a fixed mindset are often frustrated and disheartened in the face of failure, while children with a growth mindset become more motivated when they experience a challenge or setback.
These mindsets have real implication for children’s motivation and achievement in school. Research shows that children’s intelligence mindsets predict their achievement when faced with academic challenges, as well as their completion of difficult coursework.
One might think that parents transmit their own intelligence mindsets to their children, but researchers have found little evidence of a link between parents’ own mindset and their children’s. This makes sense once you consider that parents’ beliefs are not visible, and therefore children might not pick up on them.
What is visible is how parents respond to their children’s failure. New research from Carol Dweck and her colleague shows that while parents’ mindsets about ability and intelligence do not predict their children’s mindsets, parents’ failure mindsets do predict their children’s mindsets about ability and intelligence. Parents who though failure was debilitating rather than and opportunity for growth and learning tended to have children who had fixed mindsets. More so, the researchers found that children’s reports of their parents’ attitudes toward failure also predicted children’s mindsets, suggesting that children do indeed perceive their parents’ negative attitudes about failure, which shapes their perceptions of their own intelligence and ability.
Parents do seem to influence whether their children perceive intelligence as either fixed or malleable, which ultimately suggests that parents can help their children develop positive views of their own ability to grow, learn and succeed when faced with a setback.
If your child comes home with a poor grade, loses her swim meet, or can’t play the saxophone at first, it’s important to be mindful of how you respond to those failures. Being visibly worried and telling your child that she is not going to be good at everything may communicate not only that failure is bad, but also that something inherent makes her fail. In contrast, telling your child that she can do better if she asks the teacher or coach for help communicates that failure is an opportunity to change and growth – that she has the ability to become really good at something, even if she at first struggled.
As a parent, your response to failure not only shapes your child’s feelings about that set back, but may also shape their perceptions about their ability to grow and learn throughout their lives.