Lately, my son’s language skills have been exploding. He recently turned three, and we’ve been amazed by how complex our conversations with him have become. This change has naturally led us to praise his growing abilities, because we now sense that he understands and accepts it.
However, I recently read an interesting article in Psychology Today that made me reconsider our approach to expressing approval to Miles. “Your Kid May Be Smart—But Don’t Tell Him So Often” highlighted the dangers of over-praising to a child’s development. The general premise was that how children perceive their intelligence affects how smart they really are. Children who believe they are inherently smart can have a tendency to blame-shift when they make mistakes, whereas those who believe they have room to grow have a better ability to learn from their mistakes. The author calls this a “growth mindset.”
If you’re anything like me, you’ve experienced the culture shift toward the we’re-all-winners mindset firsthand in your upbringing. I remember my teachers handing out pencils that said, “I’m Special” and applying the word “smart” liberally to everyone. This didn’t come out of a bad place – it was meant to grow self-esteem; to give hope to those who never thought they could achieve anything.
Recently, there has been a cultural backlash against this “equal outcomes” approach to boosting children’s self-esteem at the expense of their over-sized egos , but I’m not sure that anyone has figured out a viable alternative. Personally, I like the emphasis on creating a growth mindset. I think a balance can be struck between encouraging a child’s self-worth and helping them to embrace their potential.
One of the main ways we plan to do this with Miles is by instilling a sense of humility that tempers his intellectual ego. We want his education to stretch him in ways that keep him on his mental toes, including exposing him to a variety of perspectives and thinkers with different life experiences.
I pursued my education in a similar way. At my undergraduate alma mater, Baylor University, I was fortunate to participate in a program that took an interdisciplinary approach to core curriculum. It was meant to be a mentally stretching experience, and I can attest that nights spent reading Nietzsche, Rousseau and others (simultaneously) accomplished this with appropriate effect.
Of course, Miles is nowhere near a Nietzsche-level mental stretching exercise. His focus right now is on how to communicate who took his toys and what books he wants to read. But I think the growth mindset for him has to start now. His mother and I have to instill in him a genuine sense of pride in his accomplishments while encouraging him to be continually learning and bettering himself. After all, I’d like to think that that’s what we’re still doing as his parents.
What do you think? Do you sense that there is too much of an everyone’s-special mindset to how we raise our kids today? Or is it overblown? How are you creating a growth mindset in your kids?
Caleb Gardner is an amateur father and husband who writes at The Exceptional Man and dabbles in photography, design, and music. When listening to the cacophony of modern-day America, Caleb prefers a side of Scotch. He calls Chicago home, and in winter, less-nice things.