Two words to focus on this fall if you are looking to jump-start your child’s learning: “struggle” and “challenge.”

What about words like “smart” or “talented”? They can actually be harmful to your child, according to Carol Dweck, a world-renowned Stanford researcher who recently brought her message to Puget Sound–area parents.

Young studentIn her latest book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck explains that telling kids they’re smart can really backfire. “When you say to your child that it’s great they aced that math test so easily, what you are communicating is the message ‘I expect everything to be easy for you,’” she says. “Mistakes become a word that cannot be spoken.”

This type of praise can lead to what Dweck calls a “fixed mindset,” in which intelligence, athleticism and other talents are believed to be fixed traits. Far better that parents adopt what Dweck calls a “growth mindset,” she says, believing that those qualities can be developed through dedication and hard work.

Sound like a good old-fashioned message? Actually, it’s shaking to the core some of the habits parents and schools have adopted in the past two decades.

The fixed mindset
Parents of younger kids may see the fixed mindset come out when their toddler gives up on a puzzle, maybe even going into a meltdown because they can’t finish it. Early on, children may believe there are certain things they can do, things they cannot do, and that’s that.

That belief may be traced back to well-meaning but misguided parental praise. In her years of research at Columbia University, Dweck found that praise based on ease of accomplishing a task (“You are a natural; you did that without even trying!”) hurt children later when they encountered obstacles. Put simply, they were conditioned to believe they should be above failing; therefore, many stopped trying. Dweck says this is particularly limiting for girls.

Seattle mother Christine Leahy pays close attention to the messages being sent to her 8- and 10-year-old daughters, based on her own experience growing up. “I was raised doing flashcards and I figured out early on that I must not be good at math.” Leahy says she did not hear that effort and struggle are good things, so she assumed other subject areas must be better for her.

When it comes to STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — success is achieved by working through complex problems. Fixed-mindset messages can be particularly undermining in these areas. “Our brightest girls are the hardest on themselves,” explains Dweck. “When they hit obstacles, they think they’re not good at something. This is especially true in math and science.”

Author and education advocate Eric Liu agrees. “Girls have a brittle sense of what their capabilities might be,” especially if they are used to getting a lot of praise, Liu says. Boys, on the other hand, are often told, “You just need to focus!” which Liu says sends the message that it’s the effort that matters.

“We put our children in high-pressure environments, seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments,” writes Po Bronson, the author of NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. “We expect so much of them, but we hide our expectations behind constant glowing praise.”

Undermining success
Adair Dingle, a professor of computer science at Seattle University and a Mercer Island School District board member, says Dweck’s theory explains a phenomenon she has witnessed in her two decades of teaching college students. “Many of the kids have come through K–12 without academic difficulty, so when they hit it, often as freshmen, they fall apart.”

Karen Harmon, a counselor at Seattle’s Lowell Elementary School, believes the label “gifted” actually hurts children. “Our teachers are frustrated by kids who are superverbal and articulate and can tear through books but they can’t write anything down,” she says. “There’s no output. It’s as if they can’t put it down to let it be judged.”

And while Dweck says she is not against gifted programs, she, too, objects to the label. “The title ‘gifted’ implies they have been bestowed with a gift, rather than working to acquire something. I think it’s important that any gifted program not get hung up on the label, as that will result in a lack of motivation and enthusiasm for learning.”

So how does a parent encourage a growth mindset? At dinner, ask your kids what they struggled with and what they were challenged by that day. Praise them for working hard on something, even if the outcome was not ideal. As Eric Liu says, failure should not be treated as the real “F” word.

Hilary Benson is a writer and mother of three living in the Seattle area. Her work has been published in ParentMap and other magazines, and broadcast on television and radio.

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