Parenting Relentless Self-Improvement

Changing Mindsets

Last week on the plane to New York I read the book Mindset, by Carol Dweck.  It’s been on my radar for a while now and I’ve tried to incorporate its principles into our parenting from things I’d read about it online, but I wanted to dive a bit deeper into the original material.

I was surprised by what I found.

The premise is that there are two types of mindset, and which mindset you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.

The Fixed Mindset believes that our qualities are carved in stone.  We’re either smart – or we’re not.  We are outgoing, or we’re not.  We are good at sports, or we’re not.

The Growth Mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate with your efforts.  “This is not to say that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven…but …a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable)…[and]…it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training.”  This also fits nicely with our view on the Attachment Parenting methods that produced the kinds of graduates that our companies are hiring – who want to be Einstein or Beethoven but don’t want to have to work for it.

In parenting, this means that (in accordance with Alfie Kohn’s stance on the phrase “Good Job”) we don’t praise the outcome of work, but merely acknowledge that work is happening or has happened.  So we don’t say “Good job!  You climbed up on the sofa,” but instead say “You’re having a hard time getting up on the sofa today.  Do you remember how you did it yesterday by putting your foot up first?  There; you figured it out.  That was hard work, wasn’t it?”

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At the moment, Carys mostly does a task when she is ready to do it.  So she climbs up the Pikler Triangle (and over it…and onto the desk…) because she wants to; we never showed her how to climb nor how to push the Triangle over to the desk.  As she gets older she’s going to want to do things before her body or mind might be ready (e.g. tying shoelaces, telling the time) and in those cases it’ll become more important to frame the hard work she’s doing, the fact that these skills are learnable, and that she will learn them if she puts in enough time and effort.  I’ve read of parents who say things like “you’re having a hard time doing [task] – that means your brain is growing!”

So I was prepared for the book to add some skills to my parenting toolbox.  What I wasn’t prepared for was that it would impact me as well.

Relentless Self-Improvement

For the most part I think I have a growth mindset toward myself – if I don’t do well on a test, I figure out what went wrong and apply myself to doing better next time.  I don’t consider myself a victim when things don’t go my way, and I like to use the motto “relentless self-improvement.”  When I’m making toys for Carys or plumbing our laundry room I’m usually figuring it out as I go along, and  when the way I’d planned doesn’t work out I might take a break to think but I always come back to the task and try a new way.  (It can lead to some do-overs, but you generally have to do the whole project over at least twice for it to work out more expensive than just hiring someone…)

I’m pretty good at making things from instructions, but I’m not that great at design and I can’t draw.  I’ve always known it about myself, and I figured drawing is just one of those things some people can do and others can’t and that my drawing (in)ability was a fixed trait rather than something I can modify.

One page of Dweck’s book has two columns of portraits – the first is much like a self-portrait I would draw, that doesn’t really look like anyone.  The second column shows portraits that are pretty recognizable as people; the facial proportions are right and you can see the play of light and shadow – I looked closely and thought “Wow – those are pretty good!” (There’s an example below; the portraits shown in Dweck’s book – and more – can be found here)

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Image credit:

Turns out the portraits were drawn by the same people, before and after a five-day technique course called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  I was stunned.  I’d though the two columns of drawings were of the same person by different people.

I stopped by The Strand bookstore during my New York wandering yesterday and picked up the book (a used copy of the old 1989 version recommended by Amazon reviewers, not the newer version that’s apparently not as good).  I plan to get a sketchbook and some pencils and see if drawing is a learnable skill after all.

I’ll let you know how it goes…

Do you want to understand how your child’s brain is developing?

If there's just no way you can get to all the reading on your child's development that you want to do, check out my free four-page summary of Your Child’s Growing Mind by Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.

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  • Reply
    Melissa Goebel
    December 6, 2015 at 11:54 pm

    Wow- this Mindset concept is a real eye-opener. I’m a fixed mindset person on most fronts- if something doesnt come easily to me, I usually just chalk it up to not being in my wheelhouse…. Until I became a parent, which is proving to be way harder than I thought and which I obviously can’t walk away from. I know it will get easier but perhaps changing my mindset to it will definitely help this along… Thanks for putting this out there!

    • Reply
      December 7, 2015 at 9:29 am

      You’re welcome, Melis – glad it was helpful. The book is full of examples of people getting better at things because they were told (or started to believe) they could. I’m about half way through the Drawing book by now; it’s been a lot of skill-building exercises that are going to be put together at the end so it’s hard to tell if I’m making real progress, but I have a pretty funny ‘before’ drawing of Alvin to put up at some point either way…

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