There’s an epidemic in our country. Parents and teachers drop “S” bombs right and left in front of children. The time has come to put a stop to the “S” word – Smart.
Stanford psychology professor Carole Dweck has spent the last four decades studying motivation and learning in children and adults. She’s dedicated her life’s work to understanding how people cope with challenge and difficulty.
Dweck suggests telling kids they’re smart fosters a fixed mindset. Children and adults with a fixed mindset believe intelligence and talent is fixed rather than developed. They spend more time trying to prove over and over again how smart or talented they are, rather than putting in the effort to improve or grow their intelligence or talent.
People with a fixed mindset shut down in the face of challenges or blame other factors when they fail. In Mindsets: The Psychology of Success, Dweck says “praise should deal, not with the child’s personality attributes, but with his efforts and achievements.”
Parents and teachers should not tell children, “You’re so smart!” Instead they should focus on recognizing their effort. Don't say, "You finished that puzzle! You’re so smart!" Do say, "You finished that puzzle! I’m proud of you for sticking with it until you finished!"
Focusing on effort rather than personality attributes creates a growth mindset. With a growth mindset, brains and ability are a starting point. Talent and intelligence can develop and improve with dedicated practice and effort. People with a growth mindset are more willing to take risks, persist, and develop grit.
A useful phrase I use with my six-year-old and students is “not yet.” I want my daughter and students to learn that failure doesn’t reflect intelligence. Failure is part of the process to learning more and improvement. It’s okay to fail. Everyone fails.
Our daughter couldn’t hit a baseball last spring. We said, “It’s okay. You can’t do it yet. Let’s keep practicing. You will.” Midway through the season she started smacking the ball with her bat. She went from wanting to quit and refusing to bat in her first game to running on the field with joy and not wanting the season to end.
We reference that experience every time she wants to shut down when a task gets difficult. It helps for kids to visualize times they've failed and improved. It also helps when parents and teachers tell stories of times when they used a growth mindset and persevered through a challenge.
My students earn a lot of “not yet’s” on quizzes, papers, and assignments. I’ve stopped putting the focus on letter grades and redirecting their attention to effort. An ‘A’ or an ‘F’ doesn’t tell a student about their ability. Students work for ‘A’s’ rather than self-improvement or shut down when they earn ‘F’s.
Now I say, “Your paper isn’t there – YET. Here is what you did well, and here is what you need to work on to get there.” It’s incredible how shifting the focus to effort has changed the attitudes in my classroom. Students understand the concept of growth mindset and know that not everyone will get to the finish line at the same time, but we’ll all get there. We’re all capable of achieving success.
When parents ask me for advice when their students suffer from anxiety or struggle in school, I talk to them about fixed vs. growth mindset. Parents appreciate having a strategy they can use with their kids that will help them in all aspects of their development: academics, sports, the arts, and personal development.
Let’s stop using the “S” word and start praising effort. Let’s stop raising kids to live for “now” instead of “yet.” Start using “not yet” and focus on developing a growth mindset in your kids and yourself. It’s the smart thing to do.
You can learn more about the power of "not yet" in Dweck's Ted Talk. You can download a free educator's mindset tool kit here.
Because of all this, and so much more ... I resolve to stay the course set out by our courageous foremothers who fought pointedly, persistently for equality. I'm a woman raising a daughter in a world that values her more for her bone structure than her brain. This is my resolution. This is my feminist manifesto.
I now know there are steps I can take to change how I think, to find the true me again. That is why I am going to take better care of myself this year. In fact, that’s the only resolution I care to make. For both my own health, and as an important example to my kids, this year, I'm resolving to practice a kindness that starts from within.