Here’s the Secret Phrase to Turn Your Kid Into an Amazing Student

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My 5-year-old Abby struggles when she makes mistakes.

Just a hunch, but I think it might have something to do with her mother being a perfectionist. Or maybe it’s just the nature of Abby’s own personality.

But watching my child be so incredibly hard on herself gives me a renewed sense of urgency to get a handle on my own perfectionist tendencies.

Abby will say things like:

  • “I’m never going to learn how to read.”
  • “Everyone else is better than me.”
  • “I’m the worst kid in the world.”

That last one is like an ice-cold knife sliding into my gut.

An Eye Opener

Here’s the Secret Phrase to Turn Your Kid Into a Better Student
Photo by MissMessie

The other night as I was tucking Abby in, I asked: “What makes someone smart?”

“Their brain,” she said.

I laughed. “That’s a good point.”

Then I asked: “What about your baby sister? Is she smart?”

“No.”

I raised one eyebrow. “How will she get smart?”

“By learning things.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “And by making mistakes, right?”

She nodded.

We were both quiet for a few seconds. I thought of earlier in the day when she said she’d never learn to read. In response, I picked out an easy reader book and sat down with her. She read the whole thing, needing help on just a handful of words.

She pulled the covers up over her shoulders, snapping me out of the memory.

I asked: “What about you? Are you smart?”

A shy little smile. “Yes.”

“Are you as smart as you’ll ever be?”

“No.”

I smiled. “How will you get smarter?”

“I’m going to learn more things.”

“And make mistakes, right?”

She nodded.

One day, I know I’ll get an eye roll instead of a nod, but in the meantime I’ll gladly brainwash the perfectionism out of her.

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There Are Two Kinds of People in the World

Our conversation that night sparked something for me.

A few years ago, I volunteered as a mentor to a small group of girls in a second-grade classroom.

In the volunteer training, the educators running the program taught us a concept I’d never heard before: fixed versus growth mindset.

Children who have a fixed mindset believe that you are as smart as you’ll ever be. You can’t change how smart you are, no matter how hard you try. And you can’t change your personality or how creative you are.

But children with a growth mindset believe that if you work hard, you can become smarter. These kids thrive on challenge. Whereas fixed-mindset kids see failure as evidence of not being smart, growth-mindset kids see failure as an opportunity for growing. In fact, they don’t even see it as failure. They see it as LEARNING.

Can you take a guess which kids are most successful in school and in their careers later in life? Which kids have the greatest capacity for happiness?

More than 20 years of research shows that the key to success in school and life is having a growth mindset. In other words, if you believe that trying hard will make you smarter, it will.

However, if you believe that nothing you do will change how smart you are, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s more, these fixed-mindset kids don’t enjoy the learning process. Their mindset even drives them to lie about their school performance in order to maintain the perception that they are smart. They simply can’t handle mistakes.

“In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort.

In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.”

In the Words of a Genius

This idea may be hard to accept. The whole concept goes against what a lot of us have believed our whole lives. Myself included.

I’ve always thought: You’re either smart, or you’re not.

In the immortal words of Ron White, you can’t fix stupid.

But here’s what another famous person had to say on the subject:

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” – Albert Einstein

If you think Einstein was just being humble, you can read this book to see the years and years of research that proves his point. From an article about the book:

“This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

Well, duh. As a parent, OF COURSE you believe that if your child works hard, she can be anything she wants to be.

But the problem?

Our actions as parents don’t always support this important growth mindset.

Here’s What We’re Doing Wrong

Have you ever told your kid he’s smart? I sure have.

And we’re not alone. According to one survey, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart.

But we need to stop, and here’s why.

Telling your child “You’re smart” is playing right into the fixed mindset.

In just one of the many studies that shows what happens when you praise your child by saying she’s smart, the researchers studied fifth-grade students:

The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles – puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”…

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice…was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

But why?

“When we praise children for their intelligence,” [researcher Carol Dweck] wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’?” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score – by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning – by about 20 percent.

Telling your kid she’s smart stresses her out. It shifts her focus to getting and keeping that label of “smart.” She doesn’t learn as well, she doesn’t enjoy the learning process, and she actually does WORSE on her schoolwork because of it.

Okay, Okay! Tell Me What to Do Instead!

If you’re like me, after reading this you’re all “Wait, whaaa? Not tell my kid she’s smart? That’s just MEAN!”

And yes, you may feel like a meanie at first.

But the secret to turning your child into an awesome student and setting her up for a life of success is to praise her effort, not the outcome.

Every time you feel the urge to say “Wow, you’re so smart” or “You’re really good at math,” say this magic phrase instead:

“Wow, you worked really hard.”

That’s all.

Just comment on how much effort your kid put into what he’s doing.

Over time, your child will learn that it’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to make mistakes if you learn from them. And even better, he’ll learn that it’s FUN to challenge yourself to learn new things.

Want More?

Check out 7 Surefire Ways to Make Your Kid a Better Student for more ways to change your child’s mindset.

For more tips on teaching your kids important stuff, follow my Pinterest board Teach.

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Your Turn

Which mindset do you have? What about your kids? Leave a comment to share!