Karen Salmansohn

Karen Salmansohn

Bouncing Back

What to Tell Kids After Failures and Mistakes

Research in the field of developmental psychology suggests these tools.

Posted Nov 12, 2012

If so, although these compliments sound like good things to tell kids, they actually can bring some potential problems in the longrun. Which is why Dr. Dweck is a big supporter of parents and teachers using an “Incremental Theorist Learning Style” instead.


Dr. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of developmental psychology, has written a lot about teaching kids to grow up with an “Incremental Theory Way Of Learning” – versus an “Entity Theory Way Of Learning.”

“Entity Theorists” are folks who attribute success to an innate and unalterable level of ability – a specific entity of talent. “Entity theorists” tend to say things like: "You're gifted." Or: "You're a natural."

Contrarily, “Incremental Theorists” believe that success is achieved through putting in the necessary hard work. “Incremental Theorists” tend to say things like: “You achieved ‘this’ because you worked very hard. I’m so proud of you for putting in that extra discipline, effort, patience and courage – along with your natural abilities.”

According to Dr. Dweck, a big key to a successful life is to embrace being an “Incremental Theorist” – so when failure or disappointments occur, you are ready to put in the necessary discipline, effort, patience and courage to overcome them!

Basically, discipline, effort, patience and courage are hugely important core values for kids to grow up embracing.

Dr. Dweck has performed many studies which show that students who are “Entity Theorists” — and think of success as something innate and unalterable – actually succeed less and fail more — because they are more likely to feel helpless after they fail – and then give up.

In contrast, students who are “Incremental Theorists” think of success as requiring long-term discipline, effort, patience and courage – succeed more over time — because they attribute failure to not working hard enough — or not seeking help and new insights. As a result, instead of giving up after failure, these students simply work harder, seek insights, and accept support.

In one study, students were divided into two groups. One displayed Entity Theory beliefs. The other displayed Incremental Theory beliefs. Both were given an easy math test – which both groups passed with flying colors. Next, both groups were given an impossible math test – which these students would have ZERO possibility of passing. They all failed. Now here’s where this study gets interesting. Next up a third math test was given to both groups – an absolutely easy math test. This time around the Entity Theorist group failed – because they were so flummoxed by flunking the challenging test before this one. However the Incremental Theorist group again passed with flying colors – -because failure did not throw them for a loop. 

Why? Because Incremental Theorists wisely accept that SHORT TERM disappointment and SHORT TERM failure are simply some of the inevitable bumps on the LONG TERM road to greatness – and they stay focused on traveling down this LONG TERM road to greatness – energized by those important core values of discipline, effort, patience and courage.

Michael Jordan once said: “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the winning shot…and missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why…I succeed.” Michael Jordan is a wonderful example of an Incremental Theorist.

Thomas Edison is also a poster child for Incremental Theory. Edison famously said: “Results? Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward….”

Unfortunately, many present day adults were raised as “Entity Theorists.” Hence you’ve probably heard friends give an “Entity Theorist Brag” about their lack of sweat and effort to achieve a goal. As a result, later — when Entity Theorist Kids grow into Entity Theorists Adults — they can find themselves becoming easily discouraged when disappointments and obstacles pop up on achievement’s roadway.

Basically…whereas “Incremental Theorists” accept that SHORT TERM disappointment and failure are part of their path to success, in contrast “Entity Theorists” – with their SHORT TERM LENS vision — value immediate perfectionism — and thereby wind up falling off their Discipline Wagon when hit with road bumps.

Dr. Dweck believes that because there are so many perkier perks to being an “Incremental Theorist,” children should be raised to consciously recognize that by putting in the core values of greater discipline, effort, patience and courage they will always reap greater life rewards.



Stop bragging about your lack of sweat and effort in achieving your goals. Start bragging about how hard you work, how patient you’ve become. And after a child’s success and/or failure, focus on praising the child’s efforts – not their outcome. For example: If child gets an A on a math test, you should resist saying: “Wow, you’re so smart in math!” Instead you should say: “I’m so proud of how hard you worked to make this happen. Your natural talent with all the hard work you put in really paid off.” And…If a child fails at something, you should NEVER say to them: “Math is just not your strong suit.” Instead you should say: “You’re so smart and disciplined. I know if you put in a little extra work, or study with friends, you can figure out how to score better next time.”


Talk with kids about maintaining a “solution thinking mindset” versus a “problem thinking mindset” or a “complaining thinking mindset” or a “self-hating mindset.” How do you maintain a “solution thinking mindset”? Focus 20% on the problem and 80% on solutions. When you have a “solution thinking mindset” – and choose to focus 80% of your thoughts/words on solutions – you will not only be heading more speedily to longterm success, but you will immediately feel better in the moment.

3. Here's a repeatable phrase - to keep repeating to your kids: "Celebrate your efforts - not your outcomes."

Karen Salmansohn is a best selling author with over 1 million books sold. She's been on The Today Show, The View, CNN and been written up in The New York Times, LA Times, Business Week, Fast Company, Self, Marie Claire - and more. She's also a columnist for OPRAH - who's on a mission to bring "core values" curriculum to kids, parents, teachers and children's organizations. For more information on her BE A LIFE ROCKSTAR program, visit her site: notsalmon.com.