2015 Archives

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids


The following is from the Jan. 1, 2014, edition of Scientific American. Professor Don VandeWalle, chair of the Department of Management & Organizations in SMU's Cox School of Business, provided expertise for this story.

January 6, 2015

By Carol S. Dweck

A brilliant student, Jonathan sailed through grade school. He completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Jonathan puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him he had a special gift. In the seventh grade, however, Jonathan suddenly lost interest in school, refusing to do homework or study for tests. As a consequence, his grades plummeted. His parents tried to boost their son's confidence by assuring him that he was very smart. But their attempts failed to motivate Jonathan (who is a composite drawn from several children). Schoolwork, their son maintained, was boring and pointless.

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 35 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings. 

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them. . . 

A belief in fixed intelligence also makes people less willing to admit to errors or to confront and remedy their deficiencies in school, at work and in their social relationships. In a study published in 1999 of 168 freshmen entering the University of Hong Kong, where all instruction and coursework are in English, three Hong Kong colleagues and I found that students with a growth mind-set who scored poorly on their English proficiency exam were far more inclined to take a remedial English course than were low-scoring students with a fixed mind-set. The students with a stagnant view of intelligence were presumably unwilling to admit to their deficit and thus passed up the opportunity to correct it. 

A fixed mind-set can similarly hamper communication and progress in the workplace by leading managers and employees to discourage or ignore constructive criticism and advice. Research by psychologists Peter Heslin, now at the University of New South Wales in Australia, Don VandeWalle of Southern Methodist University and Gary Latham of the University of Toronto shows that managers who have a fixed mind-set are less likely to seek or welcome feedback from their employees than are managers with a growth mind-set. Presumably, managers with a growth mind-set see themselves as works-in-progress and understand that they need feedback to improve, whereas bosses with a fixed mind-set are more likely to see criticism as reflecting their underlying level of competence. Assuming that other people are not capable of changing either, executives with a fixed mind-set are also less likely to mentor their underlings. But after Heslin, VandeWalle and Latham gave managers a tutorial on the value and principles of the growth mind-set, supervisors became more willing to coach their employees and gave more useful advice.

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