Have you ever labeled one of your children — e.g., the “smart” one, the “clumsy” one, or the “whiny” one? Of course you have! Because you’re human.
But as we know now, labeling a child is not healthy. A label often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and even a positive label can constrain a child’s identity by compelling him or her to perform that limited role. Hence, labels could be considered part of a “fixed mindset,” to borrow from Carol Dweck’s celebrated research on a fixed vs. growth mindset.
In their recent book, Mindsets for Parents, Mary Cay Ricci and Margaret Lee attempt to apply Dweck’s findings to parenting. As they explain, parents with a growth mindset “believe their children can achieve at higher levels — with effort, perseverance, and resiliency.” Children with a growth mindset “believe they can grow their intelligence with hard work and learn just about anything.”
For parents, however, it can be quite challenging to avoid using labels and a fixed mindset, especially in the early years. After all, we teach babies about the world by literally placing labels on all the objects in their environment. Such nouns help bring order to the chaos of experience. As young children age, we also notice that some traits become dominant. For example, if a child tends to be clumsy or whiny on most days for many years, our mind inevitably defaults to that label for the child, who then internalizes the label.
That’s where we need to catch ourselves. Here are four ways to parent with a growth mindset:
1. Reconsider your own mindset, labels for yourself
Think (and say) you’re a terrible cook or mathematician? Think again. As Ricci and Lee emphasize, even you could do those things better “with instruction, the right strategies, practice, and perseverance.” Stating such an attitude will also model healthy self-talk for your child.
When I first became a stay-at-home dad, I had been labeled the stereotypical “absent-minded professor.” This caused me to be seriously worried I would forget my child at various destinations or commit an equally embarrassing misdeed. But now my daughters know that even someone who never babysat — and who was never a “morning person” — can become a “present-minded” parent (on most days).
2. Remind a child of past progress
Especially when children become convinced they cannot learn something, mine your memories for skills that took them years to learn. My favorite example involves my youngest daughter who was a “late” walker but now jumps hurdles for the track team. In fact, for a month after learning how to walk, she still insisted on holding my pinkie finger while she walked. (That was cute but also a bit concerning.) It is also helpful to recall failures along the way that turned into opportunities for growth.
3. Avoid using “early” or “late” to describe learning
I used to describe my youngest as a “late bloomer” compared to her sister’s development, but I realize now that each child “blooms” at his or her own pace. Especially in our fast-paced culture, we tend to overvalue “quick” learners and undervalue deep learners. Granted, sometimes helping a child through a growth process can seem like waiting for Godot, but this type of Godot does, in fact, eventually arrive.
4. Think more organically
No one blames a green banana for being green; a fruit’s normal ripening can’t be rushed. Similarly, nearly every child can learn new skills given practice and the healthy scaffolding of a faithful parent — but it will take time.
Parenting with a growth mindset, by definition, entails ongoing effort and self-awareness. And abandoning all those fixed labels for children, even seemingly harmless ones like “late bloomer,” is a challenge. But the rewards for children are worth the labor.