Fixed Growth versus Self Esteem

Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D., is a freelance science writer. From May 2003 to April 2008, she was the editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, the leading scientific journal in the field of brain research. Before becoming an editor, she did her graduate work at the University of Rochester and was a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at Yale University. She lives in northern California with her husband, a professor of neuroscience.

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Sandra AamodtSo one of the most interesting things that’s happened in psychology in recent years has been showing that the ways that we typically praise children in this country are not only ineffective but in many cases actually counterproductive.  And the basic idea is that there are two mindsets.  You can think of your characteristics as fixed or you can think of them as capable of growth.  And when you tell a child “Oh, you’re so smart,” what you’re unwittingly doing there is you’re reinforcing, encouraging a fixed mindset.  This is a characteristic of the child, the smartness.  On the other hand, if you say, “Wow, you really worked hard.  You kept at that math homework until you got it right.”  You’re encouraging a growth mindset so you’re teaching the kid that being able to stick to something and work through a difficult task will lead to growth and improvement.  

Now the problem with the fixed mindset, when things get difficult we’ll suddenly get worried they’ll get insecure.  “Oh, maybe I’m not smart,” and they’ll quit.  They won’t hang on and work through difficult tasks very well because those are threatening.  That is improved in kids with the growth mindset because they understand that if you hang in and do something difficult you will learn and grow and get better.  And so just taking a bunch of 8th graders and teaching them that intelligence can be improved by hard work and diligence improves math scores, even if you don’t change anything about the way you’re teaching math, just by improving the kids’ attitudes. 

And parents can very much do this same thing at home.  

So when you praise your kids, what you want to be thinking about is to praise them for things you want them to do again, not, you know, being good or being smart, but picking up the toys or finishing the math homework.  And especially concentrate on praising them for effort because in a lot of cases in adult life just hanging in there and continuing to work on something is what gets us through. 

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd