How to Promote a Growth Mindset, One Mistake After Another

The article in New York Magazine ( on the latest research about what parents do when they operate from a “growth mindset” regarding their children’s learning – and what messages kids get about their abilities — struck a chord and a nerve with me.  As a teacher, I expect all my kids to learn from their failures and to achieve. We are a 7th grade class that is into metacognition and talking about how we learn. I ask them daily to self-reflect. We talk about next steps – and then we reflect again.  I started to wonder if I do the same thing with my own children. This self-reflection thing isn’t always easy – and my ego took a bit of a bruising as I thought about my own parenting in regards to this “growth” mindset. Yikes. But one of the things we talk about a lot in my classroom is how we can learn from each other’s successes and failures and that each are important to share.  So here goes. My story really points to how we, as parents, must learn to look closely at what we do in order to raise children who see themselves as lifelong learners.

The fact is, it’s heartbreaking to witness your child fail. How often I have wanted to rush in and fix it, wipe away the tears, tell my girls that it wasn’t their fault.  When they were learning to walk though, I never assumed that just because they fell while toddling that they’d never walk again, or even that they’d ever learn to walk right . . . I just helped them up, patted their diapered bottoms, and sent them on their way.  I expected them to fall.  That’s why we put up that ridiculous foam piping on every rough edge and nasty corner.  I didn’t want them to crack open their skulls or to lose an eye in the process of learning to walk, but I knew they would learn from falling.  A growth mindset!

There were plenty of times, though, that I probably unintentionally undermined my kids.  That dance class where the steps seemed so hard for her to follow? Hmm, maybe we should stop that.  Piano?  Poor dear, she’s tone deaf.  How can she possibly correct her mistakes?  Toss out those piano lessons.  Ouch.

The worst?  Honors English, freshman year.  My daughter had done her homework early in the summer, uncharacteristically proactive.  She reviewed it just before class started for the fall.  That first week there were three or four tests and she failed almost all of them spectacularly.  The teacher greeted them four days into the school year and said this: “Those of you who failed, you should find a different English class because you’re not going to make it in this one.” OUCH.  My daughter was crushed. She walked out to the car that afternoon and burst into tears; she had to drop this class, the teacher said so.

What a dilemma.  I knew my daughter was bright and had always done well in English.  I teach ELA to middle schoolers – the very eighth graders I had just sent into this high school classroom and I knew this teacher was trying to weed out a particularly large class.  My gut told me to make my kid stay and work through it; my heart broke at her broken spirit.  She had started freshman year with a broken foot, broken friendships, and now this. We made the painful decision to let her drop. Ouch.

Fast forward to the summer of sophomore year and Honors World History. Naturally there was summer homework.  My daughter, once again, completed it promptly and on her own.  Come fall, she learned that she’d misread the instructions and ended up failing the assignment and the test that was given that first week.  She was starting the semester with a big, fat F.  Ouch.

There were tears – rivers full of them.  And she begged to drop the class.  “I’m never going to recover from this, Mom!  Don’t you understand that this is too hard, Dad?!”  She was once again heartbroken and wounded.  I ached for her, but I had toughened up over time.

There would be no dropping of classes.  There were lessons to be learned from this failure.  How to read instructions carefully, how to take notes, how to ask for help and to advocate for herself. These were not easy lessons and she bucked at the work, but there would be no escape this time from the learning.

Slowly, flashcard by flashcard – note by note, our daughter started to experience fewer failures in World History and more successes.  Those F’s turned into D’s and then to C’s.  Eventually, she started bringing home B’s and the occasional A.  By the end of the semester, she’d brought her grade up from an F to a B.  Her pride was palpable and real – she had learned from the process that she could do it! This would serve as a powerful reminder in the months and years to come.

There were more times throughout high school that she would fail a test, not do well on an assignment, but one way or another, she’d make course corrections and get back on track.  Then there was senior year calculus.  This is where my parenting abilities hit a snag and where I learned more than ever about what it means to have a “growth” mindset. Sometimes it’s really about the parent’s mindset.

Math is where I am completely out of my depths and I kept looking for signs that she had taken after me (as if the terrible math gene could be passed down to your children).  Calculus was a beast.  She struggled – and failed tests.  She kept pushing.  With each failure, I cringed. With each of her failing math tests, I felt more and more inadequate as a mom. I wanted to help, but other than hiring a tutor, I just couldn’t.

Whenever I asked her if she thought Calc was too much this year (“You are going to take it in college anyway. Why not wait?”), she was adamant that she was sticking with it.  Once again, over time, with focused study, she brought her grade up from a shaky D to a strong B.  By the end of the year, she’d managed to score an A-.  She also taught her mom about what it takes to succeed and what it takes for me to help her. Sometimes it meant doing her laundry because she didn’t have time.  Mostly it meant trusting her ability to learn from her mistakes (a little more difficult than mountains of dirty socks and jeans).

It was much easier to help her learn from her mistakes when it was a subject where I could help.  It became much more difficult when I was totally, completely, and undeniably clueless.  I wasn’t confident that she could make it in Calculus, because I hadn’t been able to make the leap in my own learning. Had she not developed a growth mindset in other areas and pushed back when I suggested bailing, I’m afraid I might have failed in helping her through Calculus.  In truth, the only way I was able to help her was by stepping out of her way and trusting that she could learn, and would.  ­­And in that way I, too, developed as a learner.  Good thing, too, since we have a rising HS Junior heading into Honors Pre-Calc.  Lucky girl.  I’ll take care of the laundry if she needs clean underwear – but I suspect she will learn from her mistakes and become smarter because of them.  I know I’ve learned – and grown — from mine.

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