More Than Smart: Teaching Children to Have a Mindset of Limitless Poss“abilities”

We travel down to Southern California at least once a year to visit family and we sometimes have the stamina to drive. It’s a long, hard, grueling 2-day/16 hour drive from Oregon to Los Angeles. On one such road trip when my children were five,three, and one, in the middle of the second day, somewhere after Fresno and beforeBakersfield, the car activities that the kids had assured us were going to entertain them for the entire trip lost their attractiveness. After hearing, “Are we almost there yet?” for the hundredth time we began playing old school car games such as: 20 Questions, counting cars and road signs, Slug Bug, and I Spy. During a car counting game in which my five-year-old daughter was counting the white cars and my three-year-old son was counting the blue cars I asked how many blue cars and white cars the kids had seen altogether. I waited for my five-year-old to answer. Instead my three-year-old son answered – instantly – with the correct answer. My husband and I looked at each other with surprise. Our three-year-old had just added 15 and 8 in his head! In no more than a minute! Okay, we thought, lucky guess. Let’s try another. So from the front of the car we pelted him with oral addition and subtraction problems that gradually got more complex in nature. After our astonishment wore off we asked him to explain how he got his answers. His reply was an amazing feat of three-year-old rationale and logic, and mathematically correct!

That’s the moment we decided that our son was gifted in math. As a parent and educator, I held onto that idea with pride and contentment. I still do, but at a cost. I am a believer in the notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy. What we (especially children) are told about ourselves we eventually become, because we begin to believe it, whether it’s true or not. So if I believe that my son is exceptional in math and I remind him of that, then he will internalize this as a part of who he is as well. So what’s wrong with believing that you are good at math – especially when you are? Well, it turns out, a lot. For my son, math was so easy for so long that when he was finally challenged in math (after his second grade standardized test scores confirmed his mathematical aptitude) he completely shut down, he absolutely refused to do the work. There are many possible reasons for this reaction,some include: fear of failure or fear of “no longer being gifted in math” if he fails (remember that he has defined himself this way since he was three), not knowing how to persevere when math is challenging, not liking the uncomfortable feeling of “not knowing” the answer, fear of “letting down” his parents who never missed an opportunity to remind him that he is “good at math”.

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As it turns out, responding to my son’s aptitude for math by constantly reminding him of it may have been more daunting than helpful. Current research shows that children benefit from hearing that their effort is far more important than their aptitude, intelligence, or ability. In other words, success is more closely related to how much a person believes they can improve and grow rather than how smart they believe they are. In her book” Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, author, Dr. Carol Dweck, explains the powerful impact of having what she calls a Growth Mindset which allows one to believe in their potential to grow limitlessly rather than a Fixed Mindset which supports the notion that one’s ability and growth has a predetermined capacity.

In an effort to better understand my son’s reaction to challenge and to find ways that I could encourage a Growth Mindset in all three of my children, I read “Mindset”and while poking around the web, I ran across an informative interview with Dr.Carol Dweck where she gives specific advise to parents, teachers, and anyone working with children on ways to talk to them that focus on effort, perseverance, and possibility rather than ability. I watched the video with my children and it has changed how they (and I) approach learning and life. I encourage you to do the same– be more than smart.