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The Science of Parenthood: Your Child's Mindset

It’s all in the genes … or is it?

Note: This is part of a Diablo blog series on psychology research and kids.

It’s engrained in our culture to think of Michael Jordan as a “natural” basketball player. In actuality, he was cut from his high school varsity team. He was devastated, but his mother told him to go back and discipline himself. He did.

In fact, Jordan was known for being the first one at practice and the last one to leave, even toward the end of his career, when he was arguably the greatest basketball player in the world. Yes, he is tall. But, there are a lot of tall people who don’t become great basketball players. It’s all about perseverance and practice.

Abby Medcalf, PhD

The idea that “it’s all in the genes” has been around for a very long time. Sadly, as author Malcolm Gladwell points out, people tend to prize natural endowment over earned ability. It seems that deep down we revere the “naturals.” We tend to believe that people are either “born with it,” or they’re not. We apply this ideal to things like IQ, artistic talent, and athletic ability.

However, we now know that this is not the way genes work. Eminent neuroscientist Gilbert Gottlieb says that not only do genes and environment cooperate as we develop, but genes require input from the environment to work properly. Yes, each person begins life with a unique “genetic endowment,” with a certain temperament and aptitudes. But experience, training, and personal effort take these genes the rest of the way.

In fact, Robert Sternberg, one of the premier gurus on intelligence, writes that the major factor in whether people achieve expertise “is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement.”

Ideas about who we are, what we’re born with, and what we can and cannot do, are what make up our mindset. Carol Dweck, famed Columbia and now Stanfard University researcher, sees these mindsets as either being “fixed” or “growth-oriented.”

The Fixed Mindset

People with a fixed mindset believe their abilities are carved in stone. In other words, I’m smart, or I’m not. These people tend to see risk and effort as negative and indicative of their inadequacies. They constantly think, will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?

Children with fixed mindsets always want to make sure they not only succeed, but that they are flawless at a given task, almost immediately. For these kids, setbacks are traumatic. But worse, a fixed mindset means that children have no way to overcome failure.

Students with a fixed mindset have higher rates of depression, because they ruminate over problems and setbacks, and believe they are incompetent or unworthy. In Dweck’s research, students with a fixed mindset told her their main goal in school, aside from looking smart, was to exert as little effort as possible.

The Growth Mindset

Conversely, people with a growth mindset believe the hand they’re dealt is just a starting point for development. They believe everyone can improve through application and experience. And they have a passion for stretching themselves and sticking to it, even when things aren’t going well.

People with fixed or growth mindsets get upset, of course, but those with a growth mindset tend to not label themselves or give up. They see effort as good. In fact, in their minds, effort is what makes them smart or talented, so they thrive on challenge. Failure is still a painful experience, but it doesn’t define them—it is a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.

In multiple research studies, depressed teens with a growth mindset took action to confront their problems, and keep up with their schoolwork and their lives. The worse they felt, the more determined they became.

In one instance, educational researcher Benjamin Bloom studied 120 outstanding achievers: concert pianists, sculptors, Olympic swimmers, world-class tennis players, mathematicians, and research neurologists. Most were not that remarkable as children and didn’t show clear talent before their training began in earnest. After 40 years of intensive research, Bloom concluded that, what any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if they’ve at least got some of the right tools available.

What You Can Do

Don’t label your children. Don’t tell them they are smart, gifted, talented, or beautiful. Instead, praise them for their effort, overcoming obstacles, and perseverance.

At dinner, ask your child what they screwed up that day. Ask them what they failed at and reward that behavior. Children need to have no fear of failure, because that’s how they learn to take risks and reach for the stars.

Praise your child’s process, not the outcome.  “Wow, you worked so hard for that chemistry test.  I know it was tough for you to push through, but you just kept at it.  I’m so proud of how tenacious you were with your studying when it was so difficult for you.” 

Make sure that praise is specific and appropriate to the level of accomplishment.  Try not to give out constant praise for successes; save it for the really special ones.

About the author: Abby Medcalf has been in the mental health and addiction field for over 25 years. She holds a masters in counseling psychology and a PhD in organizational psychology. She is a popular keynote speaker regarding parenting, couples, families, and addiction, and has presented at many companies and organizations throughout the United States. Abby has a private practice in Berkeley and also works at New Bridge Foundation, a non-profit drug and alcohol treatment facility in Berkeley. You can contact her at abbymedcalf@mac.com.

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