As parents, it's tempting to post that great report card on the fridge, showcase a trophy on the mantel, or blast out on Facebook when our child wins an award. Most of us feel we're encouraging our kids by demonstrating our pride in them. Often such children who then have a less than great performance can become overly distraught, and we may feed into that by feeling the same way.
For some parents, they see their child as an under-achiever in general. We may be disappointed when this child never seems to get the "prize". We don’t understand why these things don't happen for our kid, and tell them so. We do so believing this will get them to improve, even when this strategy repeatedly fails, and then we experience frustration and concern.
This isn't to say you shouldn't show you’re proud and excited when your child gets recognized for his or her achievements. But to be laser-focused and only satisfied with your children when they "win" can easily undermine motivation.
Growth Mindset is the Key. Encouraging kids’ efforts rather than only their results has many benefits. Focusing on the process toward a goal builds a "growth mindset", a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck. Process has to do with the personal effort and the use of effective strategies. When kids apply these to setting and meeting goals, they’re more motivated and actually more likely to achieve them. This is because they’re open to trying new ideas and ways of getting to that result. When focusing on the process, kids aren’t stuck believing they don’t have the fundamental skills (like being smart or talented) to accomplish a goal—which is having a "fixed mindset". Kids who are rewarded and praised only when they do something very well often avoid taking on challenging goals. They don’t want to risk failing. In a nutshell, they’re under-motivated.
Kids with a growth mindset realize the more they try and learn, the smarter and more talented they become. It’s what they learn and the effort they put in that leads to success.
Instead, we can teach children and teens that mistakes are an opportunity to learn. Kids with a growth mindset realize the more they try and learn, the smarter and more talented they become. It’s what they learn and the effort they put in that leads to success. Such kids are also more resilient when they face obstacles. Setbacks don’t become a reason to quit. Rather they signal to them it’s time to work harder or try something new. Keep in mind, providing tools to help kids set goals and the steps needed to reach them is very useful.
Tips for Building a Growth Mindset. So how can you improve motivation in your kids? Help children and teens embrace a growth mindset! Here are some ways to do this:
- The brain is a muscle. Use the analogy with kids that the brain is like a muscle and the more it’s used the stronger it gets. Share that the brain needs a chance to learn by sometimes first getting things “wrong”. In this way it can stretch and grow.
- Praise effort as connected to achievement. This shows them this is what you value. It can take some practice to drop the standard, automatic "Good job!", so here are some starter ideas: “I really like how you did more reading when you didn’t know the answer." "I’m proud of you for getting up early these last few weekends to work on your dance routine and then you nailed it." "I knew you could learn to tie your shoes when I saw how you stuck with it!” Using tools to keep track of their progress can really boost motivation as well.
- Do acknowledge results as well. Letting your kids know you're pleased when they accomplish a goal is absolutely a part of the equation, especially if they have indeed worked hard and stretched themselves. So make room on the fridge and mantel to showcase their “product” while using this as another opportunity to highlight “process”. You can say things like "Whenever I look at this trophy I remember how many times you practiced instead of watching TV” or “These grades really show how much you’ve learned!"
Kids with a growth mindset over a fixed mindset will actually gravitate toward even more challenging tasks and goals. Now that's motivation!
Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck revisits the 'Growth Mindset'. Education Week, 35(5), 20-4.
Gunderson, E. A., Gripshover, S. J., Romero, C., Dweck, C. S., Goldin‐Meadow, S., & Levine, S. C. (2013). Parent praise to 1‐to 3‐year‐olds predicts children's motivational frameworks 5 years later. Child Development, 84(5), 1526-1541.
Henderlong, J., & Lepper, M. R. (2002). The effects of praise on children's intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128(5), 774-79
About The Author
Lilla Dale McManis, MEd., PhD., is President & Founder of Parent in the Know and uses her training and experience to help parents and educators promote optimal child outcomes through translating research into meaningful practice.