Bringing Mindset Principles Home—How to Teach Your Child Grit
In this series of articles, I have presented some of the fundamentals behind Carol Dweck’s theory of fixed vs. growth-oriented mindset and shown how we apply them as teachers at Traditional Martial Arts Academy. But how can you, as a parent, apply them in how you approach your child so that he or she can develop “grit”? In this last section, I will discuss some strategies that parents in our school have applied, as well as things that my wife and I use with our daughter.
The first is, when your child does well at something, move away from attributional praise and explore what effort led to the outcome. For instance, if your child does well on a test, rather than compliment her intelligence, discuss what behaviors led to her success. For most, this can be much more difficult than expected. The habit of attributional praise can run deep. It has been modeled for us all of our lives, often from the authorities from whom we sought the most praise (parents, teachers, etc). And the habit can be reinforced by our children. It feels amazing to be able to tell our child how smart they are. That kind of praise can light up a child’s face and there is no greater reward for a parent than to be the source of their child’s joy.
But connecting with a child on the process that led to their success can be very fulfilling for both parent and child as well. Looking at a child’s effort can help you share in more detail your child’s experience and offers a larger opportunity for exploring and feeling pride for your child’s accomplishment. How did she study for her test? Did she do something different that improved her outcome? Did she make choices that led to a better application of her effort? All of these areas offer opportunity for sharing, which will deepen your connection with your child. But praise offered in these areas also confirms the value of your child’s effort and encourages his or her willingness to engage the process of learning.
In a similar way, exploring failure can be a powerful and rewarding experience for both of you. If your child earned a poor grade on a test, you can use the same process to help them uncover how to improve their outcomes in the future. Emphasizing areas where effort could be better applied, not just in quantity but in quality, can give your child the tools to be more successful next time around.
This may seem obvious, because the example gives a simple contrast to the previous one (a bad test grade vs. a good one). But one of the challenges when a child fails is helping the child reengage effort in an area that offers frustration, uncertainty and even fear. Parents often react to their child’s failure in one of two ways—both of which can undermine the development of grit.
The first is to sooth a child’s discomfort too much. It is very difficult to see my daughter struggle, especially when strong emotions like fear or frustration kick in for her. The drive to step in and protect her from her discomfort can be overwhelming. But my wife and I have learned that under those situations, our job as adults is to be uncomfortable and not react to that feeling. Our job as parents is then to allow our daughter to experience her discomfort so that she gets real feedback from her choices, and offer her guidance as needed so that she can learn from them.
For example, when she is learning a new physical skill like riding a bicycle, she may fall down. If she falls down, she may get a injury like a scraped knee that is minor, but still painful. If, when that happens, we ran over to comfort her, she would have a choice between two extremes: get up and try to ride the bicycle again, which is scary now, or cuddle with mom or dad, which feels warm and safe.
Instead, we confirm that she is okay, and make sure that she understands that she is okay, then we discuss with her what happened and what strategies she could use to improve her outcomes. Sometimes, she is able to jump right back into the learning task, and sometimes she needs time to process the experience first. Either way, she typically returns to the task with a more realistic understanding of possible outcomes along with a clearer understanding of how to get the ones she wants.
Of course, when this type of thing happens, we struggle with our own instinct to simply sweep her up and take her away from the activity that has made her so uncomfortable. But we temper that impulse with the understanding that if we were to indulge it, we could be distracting her from the learning and growing the opportunity offers.
So, parents can undermine their child’s growth-orientation by trying to shield them from the discomfort of learning experiences. The second way that parents can stunt grit development is through judgment and inappropriate goal-setting. This parenting strategy can come from a similar experience for the parent as the one above. It can be very uncomfortable to see your child fail. Sometimes we see our child’s discomfort. Other times we see our child’s failure as our own failure as parents. This latter can drive us to push our children in ways that ignore their performance and their capacity to learn from a particular experience.
I can remember working with a student, whom I will call Tom. Tom was an energetic child who was not very skilled at managing his own behavior. Notice I used the word “skilled”. What I have seen over the years is that behavior “problems,” unless a child has a physiological disorder, are more often the result of social or emotional learning. Managing one’s own behavior is a skill that is developed through this type of learning.
Tom was a child who had not received this type of learning. He had difficulty staying on task, and his parents blamed it on him having too much energy (blaming an attribute as if it was a fixed, not malleable, facet of the child—the core of the fixed mindset). Tom was brought to TMAA to fix his behavior, and his father would often snap at him from the viewing area when Tom would get off task.
His father’s frustration was understandable, but his expectations were inappropriate. If instead of seeing his son’s behavior as a fixed attribute, and instead recognizing it as the consequence of a skillset unlearned, perhaps he could have seen smaller action steps towards Tom learning the fundamentals of managing his own behavior.
This was the approach we took with Tom and his parents. We worked with Tom to help him notice when he was off-task, develop strategies for getting back on task when he drifted, then refine those strategies as he got feedback on their effectiveness (smaller action steps towards learning the skill). With Tom’s father, we worked to refine his understanding of from where his son’s behavior was coming.
We saw progress with Tom, less so with his Dad (some perspectives are very deeply entrenched). But hopefully, this example helps you see where your support of your child developing grit can break down and how you can correct it.
Developing Grit, In a Nutshell
Over the course of this series of articles, we have explore grit, why it is an important character trait for children to cultivate and how parents can support their child’s efforts towards this end. I have described in broad strokes Dr. Carol Dweck’s work in this area, how we at Traditional Martial Arts Academy have applied her mindset theory in how we approach our students, as well as given some ideas for how you can apply them as a parent.
I hope you found this series of articles helpful. I’d love to hear from you. If you have questions, ideas of your own, or if you want to share your experiences in applying these concepts in your own home, please don’t hesitate to contact me through our website, www.TraditionalMartialArtsAcademy.com, or call me at 512.535.4404.
Thank you for your interest!
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