The Perils of Praise: A Discussion on Mindset with Carol Dweck

It’s a dog-eat-dog world for today’s youth, as college admission numbers plummet into the single digits.

But recent studies have shown that a child’s capabilities, if given the right circumstances, are virtually endless—it all depends on mindset.

Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation and author of “Mindset,” has dedicated extensive research to studying the self-conceptions (or mindsets) people use to guide their actions, as well as their impact on achievement. Her research on why people succeed and how to cultivate success has unleashed a new wave of developmental and personality psychology that suggests that failing to believe your abilities are limitless is the biggest hurdle to success.

Family Action Network welcomes Dr. Dweck Friday, May 9 at 7 p.m. at Evanston Township High School for her talk, “Go For It: Risk-taking, Challenge and the Value of a Growth Mindset.” Make It Better spoke with Dr. Dweck ahead of her two-part presentation about her research on mindset and what it means for your child’s future.

Make It Better: Where did your research into mindset begin?

Carol Dweck: I was very interested in what made some kids love challenge and cope with difficulty, where other kids—just as able—avoided challenge and fell apart when they encountered difficulty. Over the years, I learned that it was their mindsets that were creating these differences. When I saw kids who not only coped with difficulty but loved it, I came to understand that, based on their abilities and skills, there could be developed and be more opportunities for them to get smarter. The kids who shrank from difficulty or fell apart when they hit failure were the kids that thought, ‘My ability is just a fixed trait. You have a certain amount and that’s that. This failure is measuring my ability. I’m falling short.’

These mindsets—a fixed mindset, where intelligence is just a fixed trait, or a growth mindset, where your intelligence and ability can be developed—were really at the heart of how kids fell apart or thrived in the face of difficulty.

In early childhood development, what determines if a child will have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset?

One thing we have found is the way parents praise. We recently published a study showing that mothers’ praise to their babies—1, 2 and 3 years of age—was predicting that child’s mindset and desire for challenge five years later, when they were in second grade.

My students and I are now finding that another thing that is shaping a child’s mindset is the way parents react to failure. Some parents act as if failure is a really bad thing, avoided at all costs, and others are acting as if failure is a good thing. It helps us learn. It gives us information. These kinds of messages are shaping the child’s mindset.

And, finally, we’re studying the word, ‘Yet.’ When you put ‘yet’ on the end of something, like ‘not yet,’ or ‘you haven’t learned that yet,’ it’s conveying more of a growth mindset to kids, as opposed to telling them it’s just wrong or not adding this time dimension to it.

What is process praise?

We make a distinction between person praise and process praise. Person praise is when an adult tells a child, ‘You’re really smart. You’re talented. You are really good at this.’ And we find that that backfires. As soon as a child hits difficulty, they think, ‘Oops! I’m not good at this.’

But process praise creates more of a growth mindset and resilience. Appreciating the child’s hard work, the strategies they try, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement. It tells them why they’re being successful and what they need to do in the future. If you tell a child that they’re smart and then they struggle, what have you taught them? They don’t know what to do. But if you teach them that hard work and good strategies is the way to success, then they know what to do if they’re struggling.

How does person praise affect self-esteem?

We find that, when you praise the person, that child continues to seek and need that person praise to feel good about themselves. They have to keep validating that they’re smart or talented. Many of them, because they hear contradictions to the impressions their parents have of them, may start withdrawing from challenges or not working hard.

When you praise the process, then what we find, in that growth mindset, it’s learning that feeds self-esteem. You don’t have to keep proving you’re smart. The whole process of stretching and learning and improving makes you feel good. And that’s much easier to do than look perfect or brilliant all the time.

Is there a different approach parents should take for boys versus girls?

It’s extremely important for girls to have a growth mindset in the areas in which girls are stereotyped—math, science, etc.—so that they are not held back by stereotypes, so that they may understand that this is a learned set of skills.

It’s really important also for instructors and teachers to convey a growth mindset: Everyone’s contribution helps us learn, mistakes contribute to the conversation and so forth.

What insight can you provide to adults who are struggling with similar issues?

The first thing to do is to tune into that fixed mindset voice in your head. We all have it, no matter how growth mindset we think we are, that voice that says, ‘Oh, you’re not so good at this. Don’t humiliate yourself or you won’t look good. Don’t try this.’ And a lot of people tell me they’re afraid to try some of the things that are most important to them because they don’t want to find out they’re bad at that. The first thing to do is to really listen to that voice, face it head on, and then start talking back with more of a growth mindset voice.

There’s always a sting with failure. How do you recommend  anyone—a child or an adult—learn from failure and then grow from it?

There’s a period of disappointment when you haven’t gotten something you really hoped for or had your heart set on. But what place do you go to after that? Do you go to a place that says, ‘I’m no good at this. I’ll never get what I want. People will not admire or respect me anymore.’? Or do you go to a place that asks, ‘What happened? What can I take from this? Where can I gather more information?’

Often, when people gather this information, they figure out, ‘Well, maybe I wasn’t ready for this,’ or, ‘These are the things I need to do next time if I want to try again.’ You go to a very productive place. A lot of times you look back, and you think, ‘Wow, I’m really glad that happened. That was a turning point. That made me think about things more productively.’ It makes you ask, ‘What do I really want?’

You’ve spent a significant amount of time as a professor, working with college students. What advice do you have for any recent or soon-to-be graduates?

Go for it. Go for what you want, and keep going for it. Also, find mentors, get advice from people who have succeeded. Keep gathering the skills that will help you succeed.

That idea of ‘Go for it!’ speaks to the importance of having a growth mindset. So many of our kids coming from affluent backgrounds have been perfect. They’ve been groomed to be perfect, to succeed at everything. That’s not just what real life is about—it’s not what a good life is about. A good life has a lot of setbacks because you’re trying to do something meaningful. (Don’t) just be prepared for that—embrace it.

Language is particularly important to the ideas of mindset. What are some key phrases to avoid?

‘You’re so smart.’ ‘You got an A. You’re really good at this.’ That kind of person-oriented language. Avoid conveying that your regard for your child is based on how they perform.

Does that apply to parents talking to other parents about their child, as well?

Yes! Because kids pick that up. Also, important: convey a love of learning. Don’t just push your child for the outcome. Show them a love of learning because that will serve them well their whole lives.

I spoke to people at an elite independent school recently, and they said, ‘Our kids do well. They get into top colleges. But our kids don’t make contributions to society.’

Do you want to train your child to get As and get into the right schools? Is that enough? Or do you want to train your child to have an exciting life marked by real contributions? That’s what we want parents to think about.
FAN will conclude its speaker series May 21, with best-selling author and renowned autism activist Temple Grandin. Registration is strongly encouraged for the 7 p.m. presentation at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Northwestern University, in Evanston.