How to Use Growth Mindset Language to Foster Grit and Good Character in Kids

The work of Carol Dweck's growth mindset has become very popular in classrooms across the country because her research proves that intelligence is malleable, and with hard work, dedication, and the right mindset, anyone achieve. People with a growth mindset "believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment." The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset, which she defines as "people who believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort." But, they're wrong, she says.

There is, however, very specific language to develop such a mindset in children, and it all boils down to praising the process, not the person, or using process-based praise instead of person-based praise. Let's say your child got an "A" on their math test. Awesome! A process-based praise would sound like, "I know you studied really hard for that test to be sure you understood the material. It looks like your hard work paid off. Good job!" as opposed to "You're so good at math; you're a math wiz like your dad!". And, as you might have guessed, person-based praise is praising the person. When Johnny scores the winning goal of his basketball game person-based praise would sound like, "You're so good at basketball. You're a natural." as opposed to "Those extra hours you put in practicing your three-point shot really showed today! Way to go!"

Person-based praise, or telling a child he or she is "smart", "amazing", "a natural", or "the best" unfortunately does not produce a child that will grow up to be "smart", "amazing", "a natural" or "the best". According to Dr. Dana Suskind the author of Thirty Million Words, praising a child in this way is actually counterproductive and counterintuitive because when the child inevitably runs into a situation where something doesn't come natural he or she will be more likely to give up, whether is be on a math test or on the basketball court. This type of praise fosters a fixed mindset, the belief that basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits that cannot be developed. Dweck's research supports that children who have heard person-based praise have been found to be more likely to give up when things became challenging, and were more likely to lie about achievement in order to appear smarter (Suskind, p. 105). 

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However, when you want to foster a child with good character, one who is kind, empathetic and honest, the exact opposite is true. You want to praise the person, not the process, because you want children to feel like they ARE intrinsically good. For example, if I see my child share her toys I would say, "You ARE such a good friend" as opposed to "It was really nice of you to share your toys." This makes her feel like she is a good person or friend, not that she made the choice to be, and that she has the choice not to be. Adam Grant, the author of the article Raising a Moral Child says, "When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become a part of us.” (Suskind, p. 125).

In summary, praise the process if you want a gritty child who won't give up. Praise the person if you want to develop a child with good character. I suggest a balance of both so all kids know how to work hard and be nice.