Failure. It’s such a loaded word. It brings up strong emotions, and for many of us, memories of times we weren’t good enough. While failure is unavoidable, the feelings of shame and fear that often go along with it are not.
A person with a fixed mindset believes that his abilities are static—he is either smart or he isn’t, fast or slow, funny or boring.
In contrast, a person with a growth mindset believes that through his own efforts, his abilities can improve. He can become smarter by studying and asking questions, can get faster through training and practice.
People with a growth mindset are less afraid of failure because they do not believe failure is a sign that they aren’t good enough, it is just a sign that they need to keep working at something.
So how can we help our children develop a growth mindset?
Here are six simple phrases to try.
1. “That’s tricky, but you can do it.”
Adults often say to children, “That’s easy, you can do it!” But what if the child can’t do it? Then he’s just failed to do something ‘easy,’ which is pretty discouraging. And if he does succeed with the task, he doesn’t feel that good about it, because he’s merely accomplished something easy.
When offering encouragement, it’s generally more effective to acknowledge that a task may be difficult. Saying, “Riding a bike is hard, but I believe you can do it” validates a child’s struggle, while still encouraging him to keep trying.
2. “You can’t do it, yet.”
Children often get discouraged and say “I can’t do it.” Try responding with, “You can’t do it, yet. It will take more practice.” Adding the simple little word “yet” helps reframe the struggle. It is not that your child is incapable, he just hasn’t quite mastered something yet.
3. “You worked so hard on that!”
It is tempting to tell our children they are smart, beautiful and perfect. The trouble with these well-meaning compliments though, is that they praise fixed traits over which a child has no control. Children may begin to worry about letting us down. If they get a bad grade, does that mean they aren’t smart anymore?
Next time your child brings home an A, try praising her effort instead of her intelligence. Try saying, “You studied for hours for that test and you got an A!” instead of “You got an A, you’re so smart!” This puts the focus on effort, something a child can control, and helps link hard work with success.
If your child brings home a bad grade next time, she will know it doesn’t mean she’s not smart, it just means she needed to study more or ask for help.
4. “Do you remember when you couldn’t tie your shoes?”
Remind your child of all of the things he has already learned and accomplished. If he is struggling with learning to read and feeling like he’ll never be good at it, take a moment to talk about something he used to struggle with, but is now easy for him.
Talk about when he was a baby and couldn’t even hold his head up. Talk about how tying his shoes was so hard for him last year, and now he doesn’t even have to think about it, it’s so easy for him.
This little trip down memory lane reminds your child that new things are hard, but they get easier with effort and practice.
5. “Did you know your brain can grow?”
Your child picks up on all of the subtle cues from the language you use, but there’s no reason not to talk to her directly about how people learn as well.
Consider getting a and talk about how practicing things again and again makes our brain better and faster at doing them through something called myelination. Keep it simple, but don’t shy away from the science of learning if your child is interested.
6. “Whoops! I messed up.”
How we react to our own failures in front of our children has just as much impact as what we say to them. Admitting you’ve messed up—and showing that it’s okay—can go a long way in normalizing failure and instilling a growth mindset.
Did you forget about the rice on the stove and burn it? Say something like, “Whoops, I got busy and forgot the rice. That’s okay, I’ll make some pasta instead. Next time I’ll set a timer.”
If you verbally berate yourself for your mistakes, your child will see that messing up is not actually okay, no matter what you say to him about his own mistakes.
Some children are naturally more anxious and afraid of failure than others, but the good news is we can do a lot to help our children embrace new challenges and see that ‘failing’ is just a step in the learning process.