Many of us don’t make it out of our own childhoods unscathed (who does, really?), and — for better or worse — those experiences shape us. As parents, we all want the best for our kids… and it can amplify those feelings if you went through things when you were younger that made you believe you weren’t good enough or would never go anywhere in life. It’s probably made you painfully aware of how important it is to develop a healthy mindset at a young age. When kids discover what works for them to improve upon their skills, they feel more empowered and confident. When they understand the concept that when they put their mind to something, they can do anything, they feel encouraged and excited about their potential. That’s what we want for them. So how do you do that, exactly? By implementing a growth mindset for kids.
"A growth mindset for children means that they believe they are capable of improving their performance through hard work," Dr. Cara Damiano Goodwin, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and Founder of Parenting Translator, tells Scary Mommy. In practice, "It means [children] see mistakes as learning opportunities and failures as a chance to improve on their performance in the future. It also means that they are motivated to keep learning and improving upon themselves."
Below, experts outline what to say to your children to help them cultivate a growth mindset so they can stand up for themselves and go after what they want in life.
What is a growth mindset?
"Simply put, a growth mindset is believing that your brain can grow and you can learn new things," Holly Schiff, Psy.D, a licensed clinical psychologist, tells Scary Mommy. "Your intelligence and abilities as a child can be improved with effort and using the right strategies. So essentially, it is believing that basic abilities are not fixed and intelligence can be developed over time. You also feel that talents and abilities are able to be learned and that you are capable of improving upon them with effort. It is also a way to view challenges and setbacks."
In contrast, the opposite of a growth mindset, says Dr. Damiano Goodwin, is a fixed mindset — meaning that they believe there is nothing they can do to change their intelligence or abilities. "If they fail or make a mistake, it means that they don’t have what it takes to succeed. A fixed mindset is the belief that an individual’s intelligence and abilities cannot be changed through any means."
With a fixed mindset, says Schiff, mistakes are seen as failures, whereas with a growth mindset, failure is an opportunity to grow and learn.
What are the benefits of a growth mindset?
There are obviously many benefits of having a growth mindset for your little one. "A growth mindset makes a child more open to learning new skills and things they may not already know," Schiff says. "They begin to feel empowered and might even try harder because they believe that they can get better at things and learn things, so it makes you more confident, resilient, and not afraid to fail."
On the flip side, Damiano Goodwin says that children with a fixed mindset tend to blame their failure on not being good enough and then feel more tempted to give up: "Children with a growth mindset tend to conclude that they simply needed to work harder when they failed and were thus more likely to be persistent. Children who were praised for their intelligence also tend to see intelligence as something they cannot change, while children praised for their effort were more motivated to keep learning or trying to do better."
How can you cultivate a growth mindset in children?
When it comes to cultivating a growth mindset, Schiff says modeling a growth mindset is a great way to help your child not only understand the concept but actually live it. "Let them see it in action. Be honest when something is difficult for you or when you might be feeling a little discouraged. Share the fixed mindset thoughts you might be having and brainstorm solutions together out loud."
Need a hack? Schiff says any fixed mindset phrase can be transformed into a growth mindset phrase by using the word yet. "This is about the future and not giving up until you get there. Yet also signifies that growth is always possible, and opens the door to the possibility that your child’s skill level has the ability to change," Schiff explains.
Another tip? Be sure to praise your child when you see them using a growth mindset. "If they are using their problem-solving skills or seeing positive results by putting effort into it, praise them," Schiff says. "If you notice them working hard or using positive self-talk, praise them, make sure you tell them that you notice it." This way, you are helping them to connect positive results and praise with their effort rather than innate ability or intelligence.
It’s also important to reframe mistakes, as these are opportunities for growth. "Allow your children to make mistakes (or even fail at a task), so they can learn and grow from the experience," Dr. Damiano Goodwin says. She recommends using the following scripts to help your child develop a growth mindset: "You practiced hard, and it really paid off," "I could tell you really enjoyed playing soccer," "I noticed that you figured it out after you kept trying," "Everyone makes mistakes. That’s how you learn."
Additionally, Schiff recommends letting them know that asking for help is a sign of strength "because part of developing a growth mindset is learning when to ask for support. This is an effective strategy for dealing with challenges; it doesn’t mean you are weak or giving up."
If your child is dealing with a setback, ask them about some challenges they have already overcome and what strategies they used. "This can help empower your child as well as bring attention to the strategies they have used in the past,” explains Schiff, “reminding them that they have the tools to succeed."