How Children’s Beliefs About Their Intelligence Are Shaped by Parents – (And What To Do)

How Children's Beliefs About Their Intelligence Are Shaped by Parents

Children are little super sleuths and they will pick up on everything we say and do, even when we (and they) don’t realise it’s happening. Recent research has found that one of the important things you will be shaping, often without realising, is your child’s beliefs about his or her own intelligence. 

The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that what a parent believes abound failure being either or a good or a bad thing, plays a critical role in the development of a child’s mindset.

Plenty of research has found that mindset is such a critical part of success, but there has been limited evidence suggesting that mindset is something handed down from parents to children.

‘Mindsets – children’s belief about whether their intelligence is just fixed or can grow – can have a large impact on their achievement and motivation … Our findings show that parents can endorse a growth mindset but they might not pass it on to their children unless they have a positive and constructive reaction to their children’s struggles.’ – Kyla Haimovitz, Stanford University, first author of the study. 

Fixed Mindset v. Growth Mindset. The Mind-Blowing Differences.

Children generally tend towards either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. Children with a growth mindset believe they are capable of achieving what they want if they put in the time and effort. They are more likely to keep going when things get tough, ask for help, and be more resilient when something doesn’t quite work out as planned.

A growth mindset motivates kids to stretch themselves. Kids with a growth mindset are more likely to see challenge as an opportunity to learn and to grow. They are less likely to fear failure or to be knocked off course by it, believing that if they don’t get something straight away, it’s just a matter of time and effort before they do.

Children with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence (and certain qualities) is for the genetically blessed, and that no amount of time or effort will make a difference to that. A fixed mindset can shrink their potential, as they are driven by the belief that if they can’t do something, they will never be able to do it so why bother trying. Kids with a fixed mindset are quicker to give up when they feel challenged. When they are given the choice to stay within the safe snugness of their comfort zones or to stretch themselves, they will be more likely to choose the easy path. When they fail, they are more likely to give up. This is fuelled by belief that failure is a sign that they don’t have the intelligence or capability to succeed. 

Why does a parent’s reactions to failure carry so much more weight than a parent’s mindset?

The study’s authors, Carol Dweck (a pioneer in mindset research) and Kyla Haimovitz of Stanford University propose that the reason intelligence mindsets might not be passed down from parent to child is because mindset isn’t observable to a child. What kids are more likely to notice, and therefore be more sensitive to, is how a parent feels about failure.

Let’s talk about the research.

The study involved 73 pairs of parents and their children. The children were all 4th and 5th grade students. Parents were asked to rate their agreement with six statements related to failure, e.g. ‘Experiencing failure facilitates learning and growth,’ and four statements related to intelligence, e.g. ‘You can learn new things but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.’ The children were also asked to respond to similar statements about intelligence.

The study found no association between what parents believed about intelligence (as in whether intelligence was malleable or fixed) and what their children believed. A much more powerful influence on the way kids thought about intelligence was what the parent believed about failure.

Parents who viewed failure as negative or harmful had children who were more likely to have a fixed mindset. These were the children who were less likely to believe that they could improve their intelligence. The more negative the parent’s attitudes to failure, the more the child saw the parent as being more concerned with results and performance, than learning or taking the time needed to become good at something.

How can I influence the way they think about intelligence?

Here are some ways to make sure that the right messages are being absorbed by young open minds:

  • Avoid sending any subtle (or not so subtle) messages that could communicate the idea that failure is negative or harmful. Of course, we would all prefer to avoid failure – nobody goes looking for it – but it’s something we all experience. We have to. It’s often the richest, most fertile ground for growth and learning. Wish it wasn’t, but it is.
  • If your child comes home with a poor grade or a  performance that’s not as shiny as expected, avoid getting upset or showing concern or anxiety. The fallout from this will be to dampen the child’s enthusiasm and openness to learning, and their willingness to stretch at their edges, persevere with a task and take on a challenge. They don’t want to disappoint you so will work hard to avoid anything that comes with the risk of failure. And that’s not good for anyone. When young, open, hungry minds shut down, everyone misses out on their potential. 
  • If your child comes home with a disappointing grade or a disappointing performance, explore what can be learned from this. Do they need to study a little more? A little differently? Ask more questions? Practice? This will send a subtle but very robust message that intelligence is something that can be nurtured along with time and effort.

And finally …

The way we respond their setbacks is key in nurturing that child towards either a fixed or a growth mindset. Their mindset will ultimately open them up to their potential, and set them on the chase, or perhaps, shut it down. It will influence their motivation, their response to challenge, the persistence, and their willingness to spend the time it takes to learn or master something.

As parents, we have a key role in opening our children up to the magic they are capable of – and they are all capable. This can sometimes feel like an enormous pressure, but we have everything in us that we need to shape and influence them towards the healthy, vibrant, happy adults they can all be. Sometimes, this is about releasing ourselves of the pressure to have them perform strongly all the time, and give them (and us) permission to stumble sometimes. Even in the stumble, there will be something for them – a new learning, wisdom, a strengthened resilience, greater courage, growth. The key is guiding them towards finding it, and showing them how to use it to lift themselves higher for next time. 

18 Comments

Clarks C. Mukuma

This is a very helpful piece of information. We have always been angry at our children for their poor performance in school. I have learnt more than you would imagine from your post. I work in an orphanage and it is our wish that the children we keep perform well in school in order to finish school and be independent one day. We will put this piece of information to good use and definitely, our children will be better than they are now.

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Doing Good Together™

Thank you for these great tips! Our recent newsletter focused on the benefits of “embracing failure” and has tips to help parents focus on a growth mindset with their parenting. As always this is a good reminder that as parents, we can model the behavior we want to see from our children.

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Sneh

Whenever, I get s note from u , I m always amazed with the message u part sigh or convey. I have one 13 yr old soon to be 14 thinks n gets into meg n fixed rigorous that it drives me bonkers, now I don’t feel alone

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Collette

This is really interesting. One of my children embraces this and believes that if she keeps trying to will get better. My son feels it is fixed, and seems to have pigeon-holed himself. They are equally intelligent, but excel in different areas. I’m always said to them that the best way to learn is to make mistakes and get things wrong, but I’m not sure how they have ended up with such different perceptions of themselves.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Yes it’s always amazing isn’t it that two children can grow up in the same family and be so different. To some extent it’s how they’re wired and how that wiring shapes their individual experiences and the meaning they take from experiences. There’s still so much for us to learn!

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Mel

Love this! Thank you so much for sharing the findings and in such a clear and readable way! My husband and I will definitely explore this further and keep in mind when it comes to our children.

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Christopher Auker-Howlet

I am trying to put together a Resilience Program for Young people in a High School in the UK for 13-17 years.
This article adds wait to the need for young people to ‘fail’ but know that success in still achievable.
In my career as a Social Worket, So many young people would rather play up in class rooms and get in trouble, than try something in case of failing.

Any additional thoughts how best to use this research to produce this Resilience Program, would be greatfuly welcomed??

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Ashley

As I was reading more about this topic, I came across a book that might help you. It’s called “The Growth Mindset Coach: A Teacher’s Month-by-Month Handbook for Empowering Students to Achieve” and it’s on Amazon in the US. Good luck!

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Melanie

It’s such an important attitude to convey to our children, not only for learning but for all setbacks in life.

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Dana An

Hi Karen,

I enjoy your blog and I am glad you posted this study. I hope that Kyla Haimovitz will continue to study these subtle and important aspects of child development.

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Wayne Stanley

I couldn’t agree more with the concepts of allowing failure and mistakes to be seen as growth tools.
I would also like to mention that the reward system that parents sometimes use can play a large role here. Being promised a bicycle for achieving a certain grade, for example, can also entrench a fixed mindset.

Reply

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When you can’t cut out (their worries), add in (what they need for felt safety). 

Rather than focusing on what we need them to do, shift the focus to what we can do. Make the environment as safe as we can (add in another safe adult), and have so much certainty that they can do this, they can borrow what they need and wrap it around themselves again and again and again.

You already do this when they have to do things that don’t want to do, but which you know are important - brushing their teeth, going to the dentist, not eating ice cream for dinner (too often). The key for living bravely is to also recognise that so many of the things that drive anxiety are equally important. 

We also need to ask, as their important adults - ‘Is this scary safe or scary dangerous?’ ‘Do I move them forward into this or protect them from it?’♥️
The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️

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