Mikepena via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Mikepena via Wikimedia Commons

Over the years, I have written several blog entries about the work of Carol Dweck and her colleagues on mindsets.  One of the most important elements of this work is that when students think that intelligence is fixed, they have a harder time dealing with failure than when they think intelligence can be improved with hard work.  This work suggests that helping students to think of intelligence as a capacity that can be enhanced makes them better able to overcome challenges they face when confronting difficult topics in school.

A central question that comes out of this work is where children’s beliefs about intelligence come from.  Eventually, of course, children can be taught about intelligence in school.  But children’s beliefs about intelligence are shaped even before they start learning about it explicitly. 

An interesting paper by Kyla Haimovitz and Carol Dweck in the June, 2016 issue of Psychological Science suggests that parents have some influence on the way their children think about intelligence.  However, this influence does not come from parent’s beliefs about intelligence, it comes from their beliefs about failure.

Haimovitz and Dweck point out that some parents think that failure is a terrible thing and that it can be devastating for children.  These parents want to protect their children from failure.  Other parents think failure is an important part of learning.  These parents want to help their children to recover from failure by helping them to learn from it. 

In one study, parents of fourth and fifth grade children were asked about their mindset about intelligence (fixed vs. malleable) and their orientation toward failure (debilitating vs. valuable).  Their children were asked about their mindset about intelligence.  Children’s mindset about intelligence was much better predicted by their parents’ beliefs about failure than their beliefs about intelligence. 

Why do parents’ orientation toward failure affect their children’s beliefs about intelligence?

The researchers speculate that parents who believe that failure is crucial for learning are more likely than parents who believe failure is debilitating to work with their children to overcome failure and to enhance their skills.  As a result, parents’ beliefs about failure are more visible to children than their beliefs about intelligence. 

To test this possibility, one group of parents was asked about the behaviors they would engage in when their children experienced a failure.  Some responses were focused on worrying about their children and comforting them.  Other responses were focused on enhancing learning, like encouraging the student to ask a teacher for help or to use the failure as motivation to learn the material better.  Parents who saw failure as debilitating said they would engage in more worry and comfort than parents who saw failure as important for learning.  Parents who saw failure as important for learning said they would engage in more activities to promote future learning than parents who saw failure as debilitating.

Another study demonstrated that children are more sensitive to their parents’ attitudes toward failure than to their parents’ mindset about intelligence.  In this study, parents filled out surveys to assess their mindset toward intelligence and their beliefs about failure.  Children assessed their parents’ beliefs about failure and their parents’ beliefs about intelligence.  Children were more accurate at predicting their parents’ beliefs about failure than their parents’ mindset about intelligence. 

A follow-up study using a similar methodology demonstrated that children’s mindset about intelligence were actually well predicted by their perception of their parents’ beliefs about failure.  That is, children seem to be internalizing their parents’ orientation to failure and using it to establish their own mindset about intelligence.

One final study demonstrated that the reactions a parent anticipates having to a child’s failure can be influenced by inducing a particular mindset about failure.  In a final study, parents were encouraged to think of failure either as debilitating or as enhancing learning.  Then, they predicted their reaction to a child’s failure as in the study described earlier.  Parents who were encouraged to think of failure as important for learning engaged in less comforting and more behaviors related to learning than parents encouraged to think of failure as debilitating.

Putting all of this work together, parents do influence the way their children think about intelligence.  Interestingly, this influence comes from the parents’ orientation to failure.  Parents react to failure either by comforting their children or by encouraging learning.  Parents who encourage learning lead their children to adopt a mindset that intelligence is a skill to be acquired rather than an inborn talent.  Finally, the results of the last study suggest that if parents are encouraged to think about failure as an important part of learning, it will have a positive influence on children’s beliefs about intelligence.

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