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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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