Why Giving Our Kids a “Growth Mindset” Is the Best Gift of All

So it’s 14 days after Christmas and eight days into the new calendar year. Growing up, there was a good chance that by now, I’d already broken or forgotten about some of those toys or gadgets I had begged my momma to scrape her money together to buy. Ho, ho, ho, and a bah humbug.

I may not be into all the consumerism attached to the holidays, but I am totally committed to giving gifts to give my son, especially experiences and intangibles that can’t be damaged or destroyed. The latest gift I’ve chosen for him is called a “growth mindset,” and I believe it’s something that will take him farther and stay with him longer than even the highest quality material item.

I think my first encounter with it was on Instagram. An ad from Big Life Journal was trying to sell growth-mindset printables and worksheets. On first glance, growth mindset seemed like yet another parenting style or fad.

Don’t get me wrong; I dig strategies for this incredibly important and uncertain job of mothering. I’ve gained a lot of insight from my flirtations with attachment parenting and positive parenting, but I feel like they both set the bar so much higher than I’m probably ever going to reach.

I have to confess, one reason I explore these fads is that I consider many of them to be traditional practices that certain communities of people had been doing before Europeans came to their part of the world and declared their ways to be useless superstitions and against God. Now these new-new white folks are using “evidence-based science” to validate those old traditions, but many want credit for Columbusing yet another aspect of indigenous cultures.

The person claiming credit for naming and explaining “growth mindset” is Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University. After researching human performance and attitudes, she says most people view life in one of two ways: with a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

The people with a fixed mindset:

  • See talent, intelligence and skill as innate: either you have it or you don’t.
  • Are motivated by external rewards for performance.
  • Give up easily if things don’t come “naturally.”
  • Hide their uncertainty to avoid appearing “dumb” or “foolish.”

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset:

  • Believe they can improve on any skill by making a consistent effort.
  • Ask questions and seek assistance to get better and learn new things.
  • Accept failures and seek to learn from them for the next try.
  • Separate their self-worth from their bad decisions and mistakes.

The growth mindset concept speaks truth to my soul’s frustrated places. I have definitely been rocking with a fixed mindset for most of my life.

I was a gifted child, highly intelligent and even advanced in certain areas of my development. I no longer hate to admit that I became arrogant and lazy as I grew up, believing that I could get by on the minimum effort because my natural intellect would carry me through. I became a master of procrastinating and cramming.

On the other hand, I shied away from tasks and activities that I found difficult, sometimes stubbornly resisting anyone’s efforts to help me face my fears. I definitely had a terror of being laughed at, being teased, or looking stupid.

Over the years, I’ve felt the repercussions of my ego-driven habits in painful ways. I’ve watched friends who themselves claimed not to be “not as smart” or “less talented” as me go much further professionally and personally. I attribute it to them having developed the traits and thought patterns that Dweck describes as a growth mindset. Meanwhile, me, my amazing abilities and my fragile, overinflated ego were in a corner somewhere beating myself up with negative thoughts like that over every little failure or public foible.

These outcomes are consistent with Dweck’s research, which showed that although the fixed-mentality people were more concerned with appearing successful, their fear-based thinking robbed them of opportunities to actually achieve satisfaction. On the other hand, the people who were humble enough to try, fail, and learn from those experiences ended up accomplishing the same goals more often, with less personal drama.

It’s not about comparing my life to my friends and colleagues … anymore. It sure used to be, because that’s part of the fixed mindset, too: being obsessed with comparisons, competitions, and winning. Now I’m becoming more concerned with learning from what is working for people who are experiencing success in areas that I want to also experience more success, figuring out what might work for me, and adapting those parts for my needs and my situation.

I don’t know if the elements of a growth mindset came naturally to my friends or if they grew up with people who were themselves naturally growth oriented and taught them to be that way, even before Dweck gave it a name. Back in the day, our elders probably referred to a growth mindset as “attitude.” I heard a saying back then: “attitude determines altitude.”

I am hopeful that adopting a growth mindset will help my son develop views and habits that help him soar through life: less frustration or anger when things don’t go his way, willingness to persist and keep trying when the going gets tough, and a strong belief in himself and his abilities.

Dweck emphasizes “praising process over outcomes” and “the power of yet” to create a growth mindset. Praising process helps kids get positive feedback for trying, and encourages parents to help kids reflect on what they can do differently in the future. Praising outcomes or performance too often gears kids up to seek approval over growth. As the Janelle Monae duet with the Sesame Street crew above shows, the power of yet is all about helping kids to accept their current position on the learning curve without giving up.

I say “hopeful” to remind myself that my son is his own person, his own soul with its own destiny. I can give him the best of what I know, but in the end, he will make decisions about his own life. One of my biggest goals as his mom is to thoroughly prepare him for that responsibility.

I’ve decided to start this growth mindset experiment with my Self — my inner child and outer adult —  because as they say, you can’t teach what you don’t know. I know my son will learn far more by watching Mommy’s actions (especially when I’m not aware that he’s watching) than from my well-intentioned lectures and lessons. I have been the youth who could perceive the gap between adults’ “do as I say” and “look what I do”; I labeled it hypocrisy, perhaps naively, but it made me feel even more isolated and dependent on myself to “figure it all out.” Third, I believe that if I am living life with a growth mindset, it will feel more natural to extend that same grace to my son.

How I parent is one of the first places I’ve decided to cultivate a growth mindset. Parenthood is already a minefield of judgment; from ordinary encounters to social media and the public world, everyone seems ready to point a finger at how other people raise their kids. Making the right decisions all the time is impossible, but the stakes are so high that it’s easy to slip into freak-out mode. Mommy guilt is real, but I’ve already begun to look for the lessons in my mistakes instead of lamenting them as permanent stains on my son’s subconscious mind.

I think it’s more useful to guide my son to be resilient — to bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks and disappointments, to forgive himself and others, to set healthy boundaries and expectations — than it is for me to put pressure on myself to be the perfect parent.

Even though this title and description of “growth mindset” is being promoted by a white woman professor, I think our race is especially in need of these principles to counteract the effects of our oppression. All around the world, black people are looked down on. Even other ethnic groups that face their own challenges in a world dominated by white supremacist propaganda and institutions look down on black culture and our capacity as a race.

Being constantly exposed to second-guessing, microaggressions, and outright racism has caused a lot of damage to the mindset that guides many of our cultural beliefs and behaviors. Those who have internalized racism have a fixed and negative mindset towards black people. These are the folks who spout poisonous ideas about the opposite sex, business owners, and even children in our race.

Others have become so focused on not feeling embarrassed or inferior to others to the exclusion of actually developing their own capacities and taking risks. These kinds of folks also discourage other black people from potentially “embarrassing the race” or their families, even when it’s not something illegal or morally wrong. They also shy away from doing things that violate their fixed beliefs about what it means to be black and how black people are supposed to act.

Being stressed out, overworked, underappreciated, not having enough support, and facing financial strain are not exclusive to black people, but we definitely have a lot of folks fighting these battles. It can be a challenge not to take these frustrations out on our kids, especially when some aspects of our culture encourage chastising and even ridiculing them too early and too often, in the name of “home training.”

I think these often-unintentional habits contribute to the fixed mentality that many (but not all) of us view life and ourselves with. As kids, it’s not a big leap from being excessively chastised to believing that we, not our actions, are the core problem being criticized. Being teased and bullied or ostracized by our peers can also lead to similar fears of failure or looking foolish if we don’t have strong, positive social support to help us make sense of these negative experiences.

I’d love to see some of our wise mental health and personal development experts explore how we can cultivate a growth mindset that adapts to our specific cultural realities, for the sake of our future generations and even for us. It’s not too late to try something new, fall on our faces, and get back up again.

Want to learn more about a growth mindset? Check out the video above for a quick and dirty explanation, or click this link to access the Dweck’s audiobook on YouTube.

Deidre R. Gantt is the former Associate Editor of Face2Face Africa. Prior to that, she served the Greater New Orleans community as a Program Associate with Foundation for Louisiana, where she managed leadership programs, grant opportunities and communications support to drive civic engagement and policy change. Her communications background includes a lengthy freelance career as a writer and editor, grant writer, and college writing instructor. Between 2007 and 2010, Deidre covered the rebirth of the cultural arts community in her hometown, Washington, DC, for the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative. Her professional writing career began in the 1990s as a contributing editor for Rolling Out urban style weekly. Deidre is also an accomplished poet and performer who has appeared on stages throughout the United States as well as in Tanzania and Ghana. Deidre holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Emerson College and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Southern California.

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