A common theme of my articles—and central to our approach to teaching at Traditional Martial Arts Academy—the concept of fixed- versus growth-oriented mindset. Understanding this theory, and how to apply it, is essential for teaching children how to be successful in their efforts in all things, as well as for cultivating grit and healthy self-esteem.
This article will explore the impact of specific words on your child’s self-image and his/her willingness to engage challenges. If you want to learn more about mindset theory, check out this four-part series I wrote on the topic.
The way you speak to your child has a big impact on how they view themselves and the world around them. When you praise a child, it gives them motivation to repeat what they are doing and shapes their sense of who they are.
For example, let’s say your child did something with their body that you didn’t know they could do. Maybe they did a cartwheel or came in first place in a race. You might say something like, “I’m so proud of you! You are so athletic!”
Your child hears this, feels good about what they did and what it says about them. They may seek to extend that good feeling by doing more of the same behavior, seeking similar praise. The more praise they get, the more they see themselves as “athletic” and the more they seek confirmation of that self-image.
Unfortunately, they may also avoid anything that challenges that self-image or moves them away from that praise.
Say a child is praised as athletic for winning a race. They might look to repeat that success (and earn more praise) by racing the same (or a similar) group of children. And they might avoid running a race against kids they think are faster than them.
Rather than seeing competition against kids better than him/her as an opportunity to grow and get faster, they see it as a threat to their self-image of being athletic. This mindset is not only very limiting, it creates insecurity. The child fears being proven not athletic. In the long run, this can undermine self-esteem.
So how would you praise the child’s effort so that they gain a growth-oriented mindset that drives them to seek out challenges rather than avoid them?
One surprisingly simple thing you can do is replace the adjective—athletic—with a noun—athlete.
If you refer to your child as athletic, you offer their sense of self a one-dimensional, limited attribute. You are either athletic or you are not athletic. This concept of self doesn’t interact well with the real world. There is always someone with more physical ability and skill, so there is always the chance that someone will prove that your child really is not athletic.
If, instead, you refer to your child as an athlete, you are presenting an identity that is complex and dynamic. An athlete is a person. That person is always striving to improve their body and to get better at their sport. And they are always looking to improve by seeking out challenge.
Another example is how my wife, Julie, and I approach our daughter, Imogen’s, intelligence. We have worked to give her brain a chance to grow in a healthy way. We have limited her screen time and given her regular opportunities to be bored, for instance.
We also have never told her that she is smart (adjective), even though many people around her have. When she does well in applying her mind in academic ways (like math and reading) or in solving real world problems (like tracking her allowance or completing jigsaw puzzles at an unusually young age), we praise her by calling her a “problem solver”.
Someone who is told they are smart will avoid things that are difficult to learn or do because it makes them feel dumb. A problem solver, on the other hand, goes looking for problems to solve. Challenges are sought because he/she knows that is best way to learn and grow.
Of course, Imogen will still get frustrated if something is particularly difficult. At times, her frustration can get strong enough that she pulls back from the challenge. But she is also learning to manage that frustration, which makes it so that she can return to the challenge. It is simply an issue of the challenge being hard, not of her intelligence falling short of the task.
Using nouns can give children a more sophisticated, resilient sense of who they are. It can also point to part of their personality as being positive.
In a 2014 study, children were given a new, interesting toy to play with. During their play, they were given four opportunities to help the adult in the room. Researchers tracked how many times the children stopped their play to help.
The children were split into three groups. The first group was the “noun” group and was told the following before playing, “Some children choose to be helpers. You could be a helper when someone needs to pick things up, you could be a helper when someone has a job to do, and you could be a helper when someone needs help.”
The second group was the “verb” group and was told the following, “Some children choose to help. You could help when someone needs to pick things up, you could help when someone has a job to do, and you could help when someone needs help.”
The third group was the control and received no discussion about helping before they began to play.
The results were striking. The verb and control groups were almost identical in their willingness to help the adult.
In contrast, the noun group was 22% more likely to help! By using the noun, “helper”, researchers were better able to point to helping as something positive that the kids should cultivate.
So using nouns can have a powerful impact on your child. It can better highlight aspects of their personality and behavior as positive and worthy of cultivation. And it can also offer them a view of themselves that’s complex and resilient to challenges.
Consider the nouns you want to apply to your child: athlete, problem solver, helper, warrior, hero and scientist are all examples.
Your child does not need to be an embodiment of the noun you apply. We first defined “problem solver” to Imogen. Then, when she applied herself to challenges—even relatively easy ones—we told her that she was being a problem solver. Then, when confronted with more difficult challenges, we reminded her that she was a problem solver and encouraged her to engage the challenge.
As a result, she is more confident in her ability to do difficult things and recognizes that learning requires doing things that she is not good at in order to get better.
So what nouns will you use for your child?