Focus on Math

Helping children become mathematicians!

What NOT to Say to Your Children/Students August 21, 2013

We all know that praising a child can be a boost for their self-esteem, but do you know what kind of praise can actually do more damage in the long run?

Carol Dweck of Stanford University has been looking into achievement and success for some time, and in her best-selling book Mindset she discusses praise and its effects. (I am only able to give you a scanty thumbnail version here, but hopefully it will whet your appetite to read her book.) What Dweck found is this: if you praise someone for being smart or clever, eventually that person tends to quit taking risks or engaging in challenges. They develop what she called a “fixed mindset” believing that the amount of intelligence they have is fixed. They will, when give a choice of tasks, choose something easy in which they are sure to succeed rather than risk choosing a more difficult task that they might not accomplish so successfully, for doing so would make them look dumb and they want to maintain their “smart” image at all costs. They tend to give up easily on difficult tasks and see hard work as useless since, after all, if one is smart, there should be little or no effort involved.

However, Dweck also found that if someone receives praise for working hard, for persevering in a task, for making a mistake and then learning from it, then this person will develop what she termed a “growth mindset” and believe that intelligence is not fixed, but can be added to. Instead of shrinking from challenges, these folks will embrace them. They believe hard work pays off, and that effort is, in fact, the path to mastery. They will persist in the face of difficulty or setbacks and know that mistakes are an important part of learning.

I am adding a link to a short interview that Dweck did in which she discusses fixed and growth mindsets.

Considering the two mindsets, which do you want for yourself, for your children, for your students? The wonderful thing that Dweck’s research reveals is that even if someone has a “fixed” mindset, it can be changed to a growth mindset.

For now what I hope you will ponder is this: what is it that you are praising in your children? Are you praising them for being smart, or for working hard and persevering in a task? Do you want them to develop a “fixed” mindset or a “growth” mindset? It seems such a small change, but it makes a world of difference!

What you say matters!
Mathematically yours,


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