Fixed vs. Growth Mindset: Biggest Differences
Why do some children seek out challenges and others avoid failure at all costs? Psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck set out to answer this question over 30 years ago. And what she discovered has big implications for the way we live and parent.
There are two ways of looking at human traits like intelligence and personality. One way is they are carved in stone, unable to be changed. Known as a fixed mindset, this often leads to extreme fear of failure and mistakes.
Alternatively, we can view intelligence and personality as qualities that grow and develop over time. This way of thinking — growth mindset— is associated with a willingness to tackle challenges, a passion for learning, and greater achievement.
Read on to discover the key differences between a fixed versus growth mindset, and some simple ways you can cultivate positive and growth-centered thinking in your child and family.
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What is a Fixed Mindset
A fixed mindset describes children (and adults) who believe their intelligence, talents and personalities are fixed traits that cannot grow. They believe we are born with a certain level of ability (or special skills) and we are unable to improve our level abilities over time.
Dweck describes her middle school classroom, where students were seated according to their IQ scores. The highest performers garnered the best spots in the room. She noticed something interesting — those labeled the “smartest” were also the most afraid of making mistakes (and losing their coveted seats).
Decades later, in her bestselling Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck coined a term for this way of thinking: a fixed mindset. When children believe intelligence is fixed, they naturally avoid challenges, obstacles and even small setbacks. The desire to keep “looking smart” trumps actual learning.
“As you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets, you will see exactly how one thing leads to another—how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.”
- Carol Dweck
According to Dweck, as many as 40 percent of students have a fixed versus growth mindset. But most children (and adults) have at least some qualities of one. These children tend to give up easily, resent the success of peers, and feel pressure to prove their intelligence time and again.
What is a Growth Mindset
Happily, there is a more freeing way children can see themselves and their abilities. A growth mindset describes those who believe what we’re born with is just a starting point. They recognize intelligence, talents and personality can develop and change through effort and even struggle.
Having a growth mindset is about more than simply believing we can improve. It also means children view mistakes as opportunities, and find inspiration in the success of others. They connect positive outcomes with their practice and hard work.
“'Hard-working' is what gets the job done. You just see that year after year. The students who thrive are not necessarily the ones who come in with the perfect scores. It's the ones who love what they're doing and go at it vigorously.”
-Carol S. Dweck
Not surprisingly, it’s the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset that also results in greater achievement. Dweck’s research at Stanford University revealed students who had even one lesson in growth mindset earned significantly higher grades. When children value effort and perseverance over being smart or talented, they can actually become smarter!
3 Ways to Help Children Shift towards a Growth Mindset
We know cultivating a growth mindset is crucial for a full, happy life. But just how do we go about harnessing this superpower for our children and ourselves?
Begin by recognizing anyone can change how they think. No matter how many “fixed” qualities we identify in ourselves or our children, there is tremendous power in making a different choice.
“Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind.” -Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Here are 3 more simple (and effective) ways to get started with cultivating a growth mindset:
1. Encourage Journaling
Journal writing is linked to academic benefits, from enhanced writing and communication skills to greater creativity. Journaling can also be a powerful agent for growth and change.
Studies show journaling helps children improve their emotional intelligence and ability to bounce back from obstacles. Journals with a specific focus on growth mindset, like the Big Life Journal For Kids, help children gain both self-awareness and confidence in their abilities.
To make the most of their journaling experience, encourage your child to find a “journal buddy” — or offer to be one. Together, you’ll be inspired by the stories of famous failures who never gave up, learn to set achievable goals and discover your superpowers.
Pro Tip: Check out the Big Life Journal Buddies Video Series, which provides your child with their own growth mindset mentor who shares personal stories and experiences with developing a growth mindset!
2. Give Process Praise
Until recently, many parents believed showering their children with constant praise was helpful. Who among us hasn’t said, “You’re so smart!” or “Good job!” to try and bolster a child’s self-esteem?
Unfortunately, not all praise is created equal. In fact, only one type is associated with a healthy mindset — process praise. This type of feedback acknowledges the hard work that resulted in your child’s successful outcome. It’s also both specific and sincere.
The next time you’re about to offer praise for a job well done, consider the following phrases:
- “You stuck with this until it made sense to you.”
- “I can see how much you practiced, and look how you improved.”
- “I love the way you tried all kinds of strategies in Math until you got it.”
- “You look really proud of yourself.”
Process praise works because it tells your child what they did well and how to keep it going in the future.
3. Offer Growth Mindset Books and Movies
One of the easiest ways to instill a growth mindset in your child and family is also one of the most fun. Stories and films are an incredible resource for shifting the way we think about our abilities.
Your nightly bedtime routine may already include story time. With younger children, choose illustrated tales focused on developing skills like kindness and resilience. Or choose ones that inspire creativity and enjoying mistakes, like Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg. Identify characters who have a fixed versus growth mindset, and what they could do to change.
Tweens and teens can explore our suggested list of graphic novels to see how other adolescents face and overcome obstacles. These titles can support your child in making good decisions, managing tricky emotions, and navigating the ups and downs of relationships.
At your next family movie night, choose a theme like perseverance or one that’s more specific, like protecting the environment. Afterwards, help children link the film to their own lives. Prompts like, “The main character really wanted to help animals and didn’t give up. What is something you never gave up on?” are good places to start.
All children have a way of thinking about their strengths and abilities. Those with a fixed mindset believe they cannot change the hand they’re dealt. Scenarios that could lead to mistakes or failure are avoided, meaning opportunities to learn and stretch themselves are lost.
Conversely, children with growth mindsets recognize mistakes and obstacles for what they are — opportunities to learn and develop. Instilling this mindset is as simple as believing it’s possible. Prompt your child to journal about overcoming challenges. Choose to read books and watch movies that inspire resilience. And remember to praise your child for the hard work that leads to each and every success!
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