Thursday, 9 June 2016

Parents who think failure is harmful to learning have children who think ability is fixed

Children respond better to learning setbacks when they believe that ability and intelligence are malleable – that is, when they have what psychologists call a "growth mindset" rather than a "fixed mindset". This immediately raises the question of how to cultivate a growth mindset in children.

So far, there's been a lot of attention on how to praise children (it's better to focus on their effort and strategies rather than their ability), but not much else. Surprisingly, parents' mindsets (growth or fixed) do not seem to be related to their children's mindsets. A new study in Psychological Science suggests this is because children can't tell what kind of mindset their parents have. Rather, children's beliefs about ability are associated with how their parents' view failure.

The Stanford University psychologists Kyla Haimovitz and Carol Dweck began by surveying 73 parent-child pairs. Parents' and children's attitudes to ability were not related. But parents who saw failure as a chance to learn tended to have children who had a growth mindset, whereas parents who saw failure as more negative and bad for learning tended to have children with a fixed mindset.

Why is parental attitude toward failure seemingly more important than their attitude toward ability? It's to do with what's visible to children. Further surveys of more children and their parents suggested that children don't know whether their parents have a growth or fixed mindset, but they are aware of their parents' attitudes toward failure. Moreover, children who think their parents have a negative attitude to failure tend themselves to believe that ability and intelligence are fixed.

This seems to be because parents with a negative attitude toward failure respond to their children's setbacks in characteristic ways, such as comforting them and telling them that it doesn't matter that they lack ability, that are likely to foster in children the belief that their ability is fixed. Parents with a more positive attitude to failure, by contrast, tend to encourage their children to use failures as a chance to learn or get extra help – approaches that encourage a growth mindset.

A final study tested whether parents' attitudes toward failure really do cause changes in the way they respond to their children's failures. Over one hundred parents completed an online questionnaire that was either filled with items designed to provoke in them a negative attitude to failure or items designed to promote a positive attitude to failure. Next, the parents imagined their children had come home with a fail grade and to say how they would think, feel and respond. Parents primed to see failure as harmful to learning were more likely to say that they would respond to their children's failure in ways likely to cultivate in them a belief that ability is fixed – such as worrying about their child's ability, or comforting their child for their lack of ability.

"Our findings show that parents who believe failure is a debilitating experience have children who believe they cannot develop their intelligence," the researchers said. "By establishing these links, we have taken a step toward understanding how children's motivation is socialised. It may not be sufficient to teach parents a growth mindset and expect that they will naturally transmit it to their children. Instead, an intervention targeting parents' failure mindsets could teach parents how failure can be beneficial, and how to react to their children's setbacks so as to maintain their children's motivation and learning."


Haimovitz K, & Dweck CS (2016). What Predicts Children's Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets? Not Their Parents' Views of Intelligence but Their Parents' Views of Failure. Psychological science PMID: 27113733

--further reading--
How to praise children
Seven-year-olds' beliefs about ability are associated with the way they were praised as toddlers
Be careful when comforting struggling students

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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