When my youngest daughter was 10 years old, she decided to start learning piano. Like all three of my children, she started at home by herself with a little coaching from me.
One day, after watching her older sister play and sing a Disney song that they both loved, she sat down at the piano after her sister had gone out with a friend. One note at a time, she began to pick her way through the sheet music.
It was painstaking for her, and pain-inducing for me. I had previously shown her how to position her hands on the piano, and she had learned how to read music while playing recorder at school. But she was still a long way from playing with any kind of fluency.
Nonetheless, after a lot of repetition, she gradually began to put the left-hand chords together with the right-hand melody in halting, hesitant fashion. After about half an hour, she came to me.
“Dad, I don’t think I’m any good at piano.”
I knew to be careful with what I said next. There was only one response I wanted to give to her.
“You can be good at piano. You just have to keep practicing. I know it feels hard, but it does for everyone at the start. You’ll get there if you stick with it. If you like piano, just keep working and be patient. It might take until you are 12 years old, but you’ll get there.”
Okay, I cheated a bit by saying 12 years old. I knew it would take longer to achieve the proficiency she wanted. But you have to remember that two years is a long time for a 10-year-old. It wouldn’t have been helpful to tell her that she could be looking at another four or five years of practice.
She paused in thought, nodded with a small sigh, and then went back to playing.
What was my message to her? It takes work, but you can get there if you try. No one is a “natural born.” And this is how you begin to parent the growth mindset.
The concept of the growth mindset was defined by Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck. Her work is now widely discussed in parenting circles, and the Huffington Post recently published a very good article that summarizes her research findings.
In short, the growth mindset is the antithesis of the “fixed mindset.” People who have adopted the fixed mindset believe that we are born smart or not smart, or we are born athletic or not athletic, or we are born good at math or not good at math.
With remarkably few exceptions, this simply isn’t true.
For example, when we see a 10-year-old child who plays soccer better than her teammates, we might be tempted to say, “Wow! She is a natural-born soccer player!” Often we don’t realize — or we fail to consider — that she has been playing and practicing her skills with her siblings for hundreds of extra hours during the year, while her “less talented” teammates hardly touch a soccer ball outside of regular soccer practice.
In these situations, we frequently conclude that one child is talented and the other is not. But most often we are simply overlooking how much they have applied themselves to their own learning and development.
And as Dweck has shown, attitude has a huge effect on how much kids apply themselves to their learning.
In short, kids learn better and persevere more in their efforts when they believe that hard work is essential to achieving their goals. Conversely, if they believe that they are either born good at math or not born good at math, they will tend to give up early when they encounter difficult challenges, and they will almost certainly stop short of reaching their full learning potential.
Does this mean that any child can become Einstein, Mozart, or Eugenie Bouchard with enough hard work? No. Not at all. But it does mean that they are unlikely to develop to his or her full capacity.
How can parents instill a growth mindset in their children?
As Dweck’s research shows, it’s relatively simple. We simply have to encourage them to apply effort and persevere, and we do it by praising their progress and achievements in relation to their efforts and hard work. Instead of looking at their math test result and saying, “You are so smart,” we recognize and encourage them by saying, “You must have worked hard to get that mark in math!”
More generally, we should always reinforce the message that things take time. Nothing happens overnight.
If we communicate these messages to our kids, we stand a good chance of helping them to develop a growth mindset that will profoundly enhance their long-term growth and development in any domain of learning.
In this light, where is my youngest daughter now in her piano playing?
At age 16, she has achieved her goal of playing every bit as well as her older sister once did. She also sings in an exquisite soprano at the same time. Piano is not her main interest in life, but she has persevered and applied the effort to achieve precisely what she wanted with it.
More importantly, she has adopted the growth mindset for everything else she does. She carries that same determination and work ethic into all of her studies and activities, and she feels happy and enthusiastic about meeting the challenges in her life. That’s as much as any parent could ever hope for with their kids.