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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Motivation: Fixed VS Growth Mindsets

This post first appeared in the Singapore Motherhood Forum HERE.

All their lives, I have told my children, “We are not a highly intelligent family. Mommy isn’t a genius. Daddy isn’t either. You, being our children, cannot be very smart either. We get where we did from sheer, dogged effort.” As a psychologist, I am well able to administer IQ tests and interpret the results. I have never done so. In Primary 3, the Ministry of Education tested The Daughter. I swung into damage control. I explained that IQ tests do contain a margin of error and did my best to discredit the reliability of a single test.

By now, her IQ score is lost in the mists of time. By now too, the IQ score is irrelevant because by sheer motivational effort alone, The Daughter often topped her classes and eventually, she graduated with eight distinctions at her ‘A’ levels. No one knows what her IQ level is. Certainly, not I. I don’t even know what my own IQ level is. I never want to know for fear that it be so low that I will sit down and stop trying to better myself.

Motivation Like Ripples On Water
Few people realise that in order to successfully motivate at any point in time, there must be PRE-motivation-moment actions and words. In other words, the things that you might have said and done days and weeks ago can make or break your efforts to motivate your child today. Motivation should never be viewed as single and discrete moments in time – yesterday, today and tomorrow. Motivation needs to be viewed as a series of moments, each influencing the next like ripples upon water. Certain words and actions influence motivation throughout a child’s scholastic career.

Strangely enough, one of the most demotivating PRE-motivation-moment words you can say to a small child is “You succeeded! You must be so intelligent!” If you examine these words in the context of the success that has just been experienced, nothing seems to have gone wrong. After all, you are praising your little one for having just succeeded. Your child is overjoyed at having experienced success and thrilled that you have noticed. It’s wonderful to see that small face radiant with joy and raring to go. That certainly looks like a very motivated child.

Problems arise some weeks and days later when you try to stretch your child by raising the bar of performance. Inherent in the word “stretch” is the notion of difficulty. The child taught to believe that success arises from IQ loses heart at the first sign of intellectual difficulty. The child understands that if success is a celebration of his natural intelligence, then failure is equally an indictment of his lack of natural intelligence. This is a very disempowering thought because IQ is an immutable (i.e. unchangeable) part of the self.

Children intuitively know that there is little they can do to increase the intelligence they are born with. To know that one is born not intelligent enough for such or such a task, is a death knell for further sustained effort. It doesn’t matter how intelligent these children really are. No child is so intelligent that he is spared from failure or difficulty. Indeed, there are extremely bright children in top schools who still look towards private tutors to make challenges easy. These children fear difficulty and failure because both are indictments of their intelligence (and therefore threats to their sense of self-worth). These children may ace all their exams but one fears for their resilience against failure when they meet real life without private tutors.

Proof In The Research
It does seem from the paragraphs above that I write on the basis of my own opinion. At this point I want to point readers to the raw psychological research that undergirds my comments above. The inspiration for this entire column is the research of Dr Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Please find a link to one of her experimental studies here. I have thus not written my opinion. I have merely described what psychologists know today to be true. Accordingly, it now behooves us now to briefly examine the work of Dr Carol Dweck, who pioneered research in Self-Theories. According to Professor Dweck, there are two types of Self-Theories:
(1) The Entity Theory (a fixed mindset)
 (2) The Incremental Theory (a growth mindset)

An Incremental Theorist believes that with enough effort, people can change in incremental steps. People who are lazy can become diligent. Those who aren’t intelligent can put in more effort in order to achieve success. An Entity Theorist Parent is more likely to attribute success to intelligence. An Incremental Theorist Parent is more likely to attribute success to effort.

A Parental Choice
I suppose it is up to parents to decide whether they want to be Entity Theorists or Incremental Theorists. Do bear in mind, however, that the research does show the following: if you attribute success to intelligence in a PRE-motivation-moment, then its effects ripple forwards in time. You might find that in the days and weeks that follow, your child may baulk at being stretched beyond his comfort zone. Indeed, if a parent teaches his child early in life that success arises directly from intelligence, then it could well set in motion a pattern of consistent de-motivation in the face of difficulty throughout that child’s scholastic career.

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