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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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