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.

Reply
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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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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