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.

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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