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Teens Benefit From a Growth Mindset (That Hard Work Matters)

We know from the experts that grit—toughness, perseverance, resilience—is key to our teens’ success in life. Allowing our kids to handle their own setbacks and challenges are important ways we parents can help this kind of grit take root in our teens.

“Let them face the consequences,” stresses Marcia Hanlon, a licensed social worker in Chicago. Take, for example, being late for school or forgetting homework.

Experts say teenagers can handle it. “You could say, ‘Do we need to change your alarm?’ Or, ‘Do you need two alarms?’ But, don’t go back to, ‘Oh, I’ll get you up,’” Hanlon recommends.

Along the way, though, as our kids tackle these tough situations, we will be tempted to offer them encouragement.  While that’s great, we need to be careful just how we phrase those words of affirmation. Do we tell our kids they’ll succeed because they were born with talent? Or that they can build talent with hard work?

While handling setbacks is critical when it comes to grit, so is sustained effort. You know, plain old hard work. And this is where a growth mindset can be tremendously helpful. So, what’s a growth mindset?

Focus on the Effort, Not the Result

It’s a concept that was developed by Stanford University scholar Carol Dweck in the 1970s. Dweck identified two basic mindsets. People with a fixed mindset believe that their inherent ability is fixed and cannot be improved. Meanwhile, those with a growth mindset believe that hard work brings improvement. Hard work and success go hand in hand.

Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, sees this dynamic play out among today’s kids. “Kids who get praised for just being smart or gifted develop a fixed mindset. And then they get afraid of failure and stop working so hard,” Tough says. “While kids who get praised for their effort tend to develop a growth mindset that pushes them to work harder and see failure as a temporary setback rather than a sign that something is terribly wrong.”

No surprise, then, that helping our teenagers develop a growth mindset builds grit—and for parents, that starts with focusing on our teenager’s effort.

For example, if your teenager comes home with an A, try not to make the grade the centerpiece of your conversation. “An A, wow, you’re smart!” Rather, praise the effort that led to the grade. “You could say, ‘It’s fun to get an A. You must feel really good about that. Tell me what you did to get there,” explains Debbie Silver, a Texas-based educator and author of Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed. “Let them know you are proud of how hard they worked.”

And if your teenager comes home with a C or loses the soccer game or bombs the audition? Again, focus on the effort. “That must be disappointing. What can you do differently next time around?”

Keep Trying

Silver knows firsthand that a growth mindset can work wonders, while a fixed mindset—no matter how intelligent your teenager is—can do just the opposite. “Two of my sons were labeled as gifted. But I saw them stumble more later in life than the two who had to struggle for everything they got,” she notes. That’s because her gifted sons hadn’t learned what her less academic children had learned early on. The children who had to work harder learned “not to give up. They had learned to keep at it.”

Sue Sadler, former associate head of Hathaway Brown School in Cleveland, Ohio, sums it up. “It’s so hard to watch kids struggle. But when you solve the problems for them, you send the subtle message that they can’t do it for themselves. When they have that experience of sticking with something and getting to the end, it’s like a spiral, where they want to achieve more and more.”

Reframe Failure

When we talk more about our kids’ work more than their smarts or talents, we allow them to move on from failure. Failure doesn’t disprove that they are smart or athletic or artistic. Instead, it simply means they need to try a different approach.

Paul Tough received hundreds of reader comments after an excerpt of How Children Succeed was published in the New York Times. “There was one named Dave,” Tough recalls. “He said, ‘I’m left now in my 30s often wondering how much more I could have accomplished if I wasn’t terrified of failure and prone to shying away from ventures where my success wasn’t guaranteed.’”

Encouraging growth, instead of offering praise, gives teens the courage and the permission to try—and try again—in these situations where there is no guarantee. And when failure is possible, so is success beyond their wildest dreams.

Diana Simeon

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.