by Katie Novak, Ed.D.
Growing up in Seekonk, MA, one of my favorite memories as a kid was a Girl Scout trip to the Freedom Trail. I don't actually remember a single stop on the historic trail but do remember my father, who was a chaperone, trying to find 15 third-graders a public bathroom. As you can imagine, we heard “no” a lot that day, but my dad never stopped asking. Finally, at the Boston Harbor Hotel, the receptionist took one look at us and allowed us to use their five star bathrooms. The best part of the day, however, wasn’t swishing around cool, minty mouthwash in small paper cups, putting expensive lotion on our hands, or drying our hands with real towels, but learning that if you want something, you have to keep trying.
While walking beneath the giant arch, I asked Dad, “What if they said no when you asked?” He smiled. “I would’ve kept asking different people in different places until someone said yes.”
His statement sums up what we need to build in all our kids: growth mindset. Growth mindset is the belief that anything is possible, and that there are only two categories in the world: things we have accomplished already and things we haven’t accomplished yet. The magic of growth mindset is the belief, that if we keep asking and keep trying, we will succeed. To begin to build growth mindset in your kids, embrace the word yet. If your kids come home and say, “I’m not good at math,” or “I can’t play basketball,” or “I don’t have any friends,” add “Yet. You’re not good at math yet.” And then, come up with Plan B, Plan C or as many plans as it takes until you start to see growth. Having the mindset that success is always within our reach (regardless of how far that reach may be) will make all the difference.
Like a muscle, success involves taking risks, trying different strategies and continuing to work toward a goal until it’s achieved, no matter how long that takes. Most of us know stories of famous failures. JK Rowling was rejected by numerous agents and publishers before landing Harry Potter, which made her a billionaire. Walt Disney had a number of failed movie attempts before Snow White. Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, didn’t make his high school basketball team. How do we get our kids to build this growth mindset as well? At home, and in our schools, we make it clear that success is perseverance, not the quick victories, grades, and rewards that are tempting to celebrate.
As parents, we want things to come easily for our kids, but I promise you that that is not the most important measure of success. In fact, I tell my own kids, “I don't care about your grades or if you win. I care about your work ethic." We all need to share the same message with our kids, and our schools do as well. Right now, most of the kids in America have what is called a fixed mindset. The opposite of a growth mindset, a fixed mindset is the belief that success is already pre-programmed and if you’re good at something, great. If you are not, you probably never will be, so just stop trying. May seem a little harsh, but very true. One researcher, James Stigler, out of UCLA, has spent his career exploring developmental psychology. In a recent study, he measured how much perseverance American kids have. The task was simple: work on a difficult math problem until you give up. Then, hit a bell when there is no way you can continue. The average time it took kids to give up? Thirty seconds.
We have to change the way we think about success and school. Our kids can’t see poor grades as a measurement of their worth. They can’t look at a hard math problem and think, “There’s nothing I can do here.” They must care about the process of overcoming obstacles, of continuing to work, and realizing that success, after hardship, is the best kind. And they need models for this, so I challenge you to step out of your comfort zone, try something new, and if you fail a hundred times, keep telling your kids, “I’m not there, yet.”
Kids with growth mindset continue to persevere because they know that it’s always possible to turn a not yet into, “I accomplished that already.” And once they achieve success after a struggle, their reward will be even more satisfying than the scented tea tree lotion and the warm, fluffy hand towels on Rowe’s Wharf.
Book available on Amazon and at local regional booksellers
Katie Novak, EdD, is an internationally recognized education consultant, the assistant superintendent of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, the author of four books, including Let Them Thrive: A Playbook for Helping Your Child Success in School and in Life (CAST, 2017), and the mom of four amazing little Novaks. Learn more at http://katienovakudl.com