In a series of articles on cultivating grit in your child, I discussed the concept of growth vs. fixed mindset theory. Boiled to its essence, this theory tells us that when a person is presented with a difficult task, they often see the challenge in one of two ways–either it is an opportunity to learn, grow and improve (growth mindset) or it is opportunity for failure and discomfort (fixed mindset).
Growth mindset leads people to seek out unfamiliar experiences and to enthusiastically engage challenging situations. Fixed mindset, on the other hand, leads people to avoid things that are difficult and unfamiliar.
This dichotomous response to difficulty can vary from person to person, and even within a person under different circumstances. A person may have a growth mindset around social interactions, seeking to meet new people and to have challenging social experiences (public speaking, for example). This same person may avoid math, seeing their abilities as fixed and limited.
Early in my teaching career, I noticed this difference in motivations in martial arts students as well as within myself. Through observation and experimentation, I began to notice a relationship between extrinsic (something on the outside) rewards and intrinsic (something on the inside) rewards. When students focused on earning belts or my praise (extrinsic), they were less likely to practice on their own or remain students long-term.
When I was able to instill and fuel a passion for learning martial arts, students were much more likely to stay for years and make training a healthy part of their lifestyle.
I discovered that to do this, it was essential to emphasize effort over achievement, something that is central to our teaching approach at Traditional Martial Arts Academy. Encouraging students to focus on how hard they are trying rather than celebrating when they are successful helps guide them towards a growth-oriented mindset.
I received confirmation for my observations, and nuance to my understanding of this dynamic, in 2008 when I found Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset. Dweck has been studying motivation since the 80’s and developed the Growth vs. Fixed mindset theory through some really fascinating research that had some very unexpected results. I highly recommend her book!
One thing that she has discovered in her more recent research is how a parent having and modeling a growth mindset is not enough to pass it on to their children. Key to children learning the growth mindset is their parents’ view of failure.
In their research, they created some new mindset terminology: failure-is-enhancing and failure-is-debilitating.
Failure-is-enhancing mindset sees failure as an opportunity to learn from mistakes and is essential to improvement and growth.
Failure-is-debilitating mindset sees failure as an obstacle to learning and performance, and should be avoided.
In her research, Dweck found that children whose parents had a failure-is-enhancing mindset felt that their parents were more concerned with their effort to learn than their grades. Those with parents with a failure-is-debilitating mindset felt their parents were more concerned with their performance.
Furthermore, they found that parents with a failure-is-debilitating mindset were more likely to see poor grades being a result of their child’s intelligence or ability. Failure-is-enhancing parents were more likely to focus on their child’s learning process.
Getting good grades is broadly considered a good thing. It is seen as a clear indicator of what a child is learning and how well he or she is learning it. The better a child’s grades, the better his or her opportunities later down the road.
But how we react to those grades, particularly when they are poor, is just as important to a child’s success. Good grades can be presented as an objective, but anything that falls short of that should be viewed as an opportunity. An opportunity to apply more effort. An opportunity to apply better, more effective effort. An opportunity to learn how to learn.
Otherwise, you may adopt a view that limits your child’s view of their own potential.
Recently, I began one of my classes by telling students to get excited about failing. This, not surprisingly, earned me some very puzzled looks. I then explained that if they do something exactly right the first time, they have not really learned anything new. But if they try something and fail, that failure gives them information on how to improve. They have learned what they need to do to get better. They have learned how to learn.
Failure is something to be eagerly sought because it is the most direct route to learning and growth.
Of course I do not mean one should try to fail. I mean one should try things that are likely to lead to failure. This requires stepping out of the comfortable and known, and moving into the unfamiliar and challenging!