"I'm so stupid"

Why it's difficult for kids to accept that struggling is part of learning

Your daughter slaps the test paper down on the table. Circled at the top of the paper is a C-minus. Not one of her best efforts. But she’s beyond upset. “I’m so stupid,” she says. “I’m a loser. I’ll never get out of grade five.”

Why do some children talk so negatively about themselves? For these kids, striking out in a baseball game or getting an essay back covered in red-inked corrections seems to immedi-ately convince them that they deserve to be labelled hopeless. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at California’s Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, says this response is common when children have what she calls a “fixed mindset.”

Fixed mindset

Children with a fixed mindset, she explains, believe that intelligence, athletic ability and other talents are simply something you’re born with. These kids tend to believe that if you are smart or have ability in some area, it will just come easily to you and you shouldn’t have to put in much effort. So any failure strikes right at their self-esteem.

Those who have what Dweck calls a “growth mindset” believe that people have different inborn abilities, but that these can be developed by practising, learning and effort.

But how do kids develop a fixed mindset? Perhaps surprisingly, Dweck says that it’s usually not criticism that causes this fixed mindset — it’s praise. “When you tell your child she’s smart or a great athlete, she will develop the expectation of things coming easily to her. When she fails, it seems like evidence that she isn’t as talented as you said.”
“If a child says, ‘I’m stupid,’ the parents should respond by explaining that this test or essay isn’t about smart or stupid,” Dweck explains. “You can point out that it is a hard task and, like anything else that’s hard, will require some effort and strategizing and maybe some extra help.”

And when your child does well, avoid making comments like “See, I said you were smart.” Dweck says this is the time to focus on the effort the child made and how it paid off. “Keep your focus on the process,” she advises.
To help counteract the fixed mindset, Dweck suggests telling children stories about the many successful people who struggled and experienced failures — often many failures — along the way. “You can’t diagnose your potential after one failed test, or even after 10,” she says. “Some people are faster learners and some slower, but we can all make progress. Einstein was actually a very slow learner who had trouble in school, but he was a deeper learner: He understood the work more deeply, despite his early struggles.”

Your child may not be a future Einstein — or maybe she is — but realizing the need for persistent effort will help her reach her potential. “The real secret of success is not being smart or talented, it’s putting in the hard work and not giving up,” says Dweck.

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