Kids’ ‘Failure Mind-sets’ Come From How You Worry About Them

Photo: Dennis Hallinan

When you want to learn about the inner workings of family dynamics, look to The Simpsons. Specifically, in the fifth (and best) season, both Bart and Lisa audition to be Mr. Burns’s heir. After they get rejected, Marge pleads with Homer, asking if there’s something he’d like to say.

“There sure is,” Homer declares. “Kids, you tried your best, and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

While not as explicit as the The Simpsons, a new study from Stanford University researchers Kyla Haimovitz and Carol Dweck suggests that kids draw their attitudes about failure — whether it’s enhancing or debilitating — from their parents. It’s a clue as to how children construct their internal views about intelligence and ability, and whether they should be focusing on validating their brilliance or actually learning things.

“When parents believe failure is a bad thing, they may respond to signs of their child struggling with worries about their ability and performance,” Haimovitz tells Science of Us, noting that kids pick up on those vibes. “[Worrying] sends the message that intelligence is something that’s mostly fixed, that even just an instance of poor performance should be worrying, whereas a parent who views failure as enhancing will approach her child’s performance with a focus on how to learn or improve.” It comes down to what parents choose to focus on when their kids are having trouble: Do they talk about their ability? Or about the process of learning itself?

In their new study, Dweck and Haimovitz recruited parents online through children’s schools and Mechanical Turk and in person at Bay Area malls and community centers. One of the most compelling experiments was asking parents to vividly imagine how they’d respond to their kid coming from from school with a failing grade on a math quiz. The parents who had the more constructive take on a failing grade focused on process, saying things like “I would encourage my child to tell me what she learned from doing poorly” or “I’d discuss whether it would be useful to ask the teacher for help.” The parents with a failure-is-debilitating mind-set would greet that news by worrying that the child isn’t good at the subject or saying, “Hey, honey, it’s okay if you’re not the most talented person in every single subject.” “These are well-intentioned practices,” Haimovitz reasons, “they’re trying to comfort their child. But it’s sending the message, you don’t have enough ability, and you’re not going to.”

Indeed, previous research shows that worrying, pitying, or comforting kids for not having enough ability is not exactly effective parenting. And kids, as Dweck and Haimovitz’s recent experiments showed, were indeed sensitive to their parents attitudes: Children whose parents thought failure was debilitating were more likely to think intelligence is fixed, and as Dweck’s previous research has shown, people who think talent is innate don’t hustle quite as hard. (Because if you’re smart, everything should come easily to you.) Age does seem to confer wisdom, parenting-wise: The older the parents that participated in the new study, the more likely they were to endorse a failure-enhancing mind-set.

What’s at stake is how kids are taught to approach their own education. “If they believe intelligence is malleable, they start to have goals of learning in school, rather than focusing on what grades they get or outperforming other kids,” Haimovitz says. “They’re more focused on mastery or understanding, rather one what grades they get or how they can impress their teacher.” The learning orientation benefits kids in super-practical ways, she says: If you’re worried about proving your ability all the time, you’re not going to take risks that help you learn. You might avoid looking at your errors because they make you feel bad because they’re proof that you’re deficient in some horribly permanent sense (sound familiar, Dwight Howard?), rather than seeing those mistakes as feedback in areas where you can grow.

“It creates these very different patterns of engaging with learning,” she says.

If you’re now worried about whether your worries are making your kids camera-shy and shame-filled, check in with yourself when you get news that your kid is struggling. Think about what emotions you’re bringing into the situation, what you’re focusing on: Is it their lack of ability or the process of learning? It’s not easy — mindfulness is so easy to overlook — but it’s important. “Take a moment [and ask yourself], ‘Am I communicating something about their ability or their learning?’” Haimovitz says. “That can be a powerful way to shape how your child thinks about it.”

Kids’ ‘Failure Mind-sets’ Come From Your Worries