It’s counterintuitive. To help children succeed, we need to let them fail. This is painful, both for us and for our kids. It’s hard to watch a child struggle, especially when part of that struggle involves denigrating self-talk. “I can’t!” “I’m not good at this!” “I’ll never get it!” “This is too hard!” It’s tempting to rush in with offers of help and words of encouragement, to wipe away our children’s frustration while leading them towards successful resolution. Ah, succes
But wait. Wiping away our children’s frustration robs them of the opportunity to learn to manage frustration, and sends the dangerous message that the endpoint is all that matters.
We seem to have shifted – both personally and collectively – away from being a society that values hard work and perseverance and towards one that values achievement. We admire intelligence, wealth, exceptional physical strength, and artistic prowess, thinking, Those people are so good at X, whatever X might be.
Our children have adopted this way of thinking. It’s sometimes referred to as a fixed mindset, the idea that you are either good at something or bad at something, period. If basketball (or ballet, spelling, or math) is hard, that’s because you’re bad at it. If you can ride a bike, play chess, write a story, that means you are good at those things.
A fixed mindset fails to account for growth. It doesn’t take into account the learning curve. You know, that phenomenon of starting out a novice and becoming better at something through hard work, perseverance, and learning.
The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset. It is the understanding that we get better at things by doing them. That expertise is the product of practice. Lots and lots of practice.
The benefit of a growth mindset is the ability to take those initial hard stages in stride, to know that something is hard because “I’m learning,” rather than “I’m stupid.” Helping our children adopt a growth mindset is a gift, one that will fortify them against a fragile self-esteem based on how things are going at any particular moment.
So how do we do this? How do we get children to see that it’s okay to struggle? That working hard is a good thing, a sign of strength and fortitude? That struggling means we are growing and learning, enriching neural pathways that make us stronger, happier, more vibrant people?
We can talk to children about neural pathways. Even young children are able to understand this. Start by talking about sledding. Yes, sledding. It’s a snowy day. The hill is steep, and you’re the first one there. You get on your sled and push off. What happens? Not much. Your sled gets stuck in the fresh new snow. It takes some doing to get down that first time. You are carving a path in the snow, and you need to work at it. The second run down is easier. And the third run is easier still. That’s because you are carving a path, and the more you go over that path, the deeper and slicker you are making it.
That’s what a neural pathway is. A brain path. A healthy brain has millions of them. But we need to carve each one. The first time for any particular neural pathway is hard. The next time a little easier. Each subsequent time of doing something – be it kicking a ball or pounding out a piece on the piano – makes the neural pathway a little deeper, a little smoother, until eventually, we are flying. Carving brain paths is what having a growth mindset is all about.
Celebrate the process. “You’re figuring it out!” “You’re sticking with it!” “You’re carving a new path!” This is a different way of talking – and of thinking. It’s not about the endpoint – the A, or the trophy, or the ease with which something was done. It isn’t about smarts. It’s about noticing, and complimenting, stick-to-it-ive-ness. Praising the process. Helping your child feel good about him- or herself as a learner. A grower. The carver of paths.
Learn more about Dr. Huebner’s innovative approach to developing lifelong confidence in our children! Join us on December 6, 7:00-9:00 p.m. for the SHEMESH Annual Winter Workshop in partnership with Beth Tfiloh Dahan Day School: Growing Confident Children, an evening with Dawn Huebner.