I was recently talking to a long-lost friend who had moved to a new home a couple of years ago. I remembered that before she moved, she was particularly worried about her son, who was transitioning into his teenage years and had some difficulty coping with his educational commitments. Now, to my pleasant surprise, she was exuberant about his new course and beamed that he was indeed doing exceptionally well, even bagging a few awards now and then. She also added regretfully that all her "worry" seemed silly and unnecessary in retrospect.
This got me thinking. How successful are we in identifying a child's natural talents? Even when we have successfully done so, we need to do a certain amount of handholding. When is the right time to let go of those hands and let them find their own strengths? How do we ensure we are not pushing the wrong buttons while thinking we are motivating them? Where do we draw the line to know the difference between external motivation and internal inspiration? What causes kids to falter midway and what can help them face their challenges?
Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist from The University of Pennsylvania, argues in her TED Talk that the most successful predictor of success in kids is not talent or IQ, but a psychological trait called grit. The same trait is the predictor of success for adults as well.
So, how do we build this trait called grit in kids? Can it even be developed? Or are some people simply born with it?
Dr. Carol Dweck from Stanford University, in her path-breaking research on learning Mindset and personalities, has classified learning mindsets into two broad streams. One is the "fixed mindset" and the other the "growth mindset".
Suppose your child sings to you. You hear her and say, "Wow! You have a natural ability for singing! You have great talent!"
You have used the fixed-mindset approach here.
Now, suppose your child sings to you. You say, " Wow! You sang so well! How long did you practice to get this far?"
You have used the growth-mindset approach here.
Both were positive responses. However, the difference is HUGE.
When you say, "You are a natural," you imply certain things are out-of-bounds for her only because she is not good at it the first few times. Or that she has chances of doing well in something only because she showed some natural ability. Many adults still believe that they simply can't do certain things because they weren't good enough at it a long, long time ago. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The fixed mindset focuses on natural abilities. You can either do a thing naturally or you cannot do it at all. That's it. You are born with it. Or not.
The growth mindset, on the other hand, is based on the belief that anybody can learn anything, provided they work on it long enough. The growth mindset focuses on the effort spent doing something along with the outcome.
In the growth mindset, you reinforce that failure is the fuel to learning. You emphasise to children that their effort was more important than the result. The process of learning is more valued, hence the child will not hesitate to keep pushing boundaries to step into unfamiliar territory. For the same reason, she will not hesitate to show her not-so-perfect side to you. This is because she is secure in the fact that her mistakes today will not determine her results tomorrow. She can stop worrying about suddenly not being good enough. It takes the focus off "perfect results" in a learning process and puts the spotlight on "getting better every time".
Are we saying children are not naturally talented in some ways? Are there no natural inclinations one is born with? Of course not. Almost all children show affinity to some specific art or science form(s). The prodigies that emerge from time to time are no myth. However, what we fail to understand is that even these prodigies undergo a tremendous learning process before they can be called masters in their fields.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, explains the 10,000-hour rule. All great masters, leaders, entrepreneurs and even mavericks have gone through a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice to excel in what they do. The important thing is their practice hours are filled with new feedback every time. They look for feedback from fellow artists, writers, history, ancient art forms, nature, their students, the people around them. When they receive feedback, they integrate it seamlessly into their learning curve. And then give a spectacular performance. And the cycle repeats. Every time.
But, here's the thing: many not-so-naturals have ultimately become brilliance personified in their fields, often surpassing the naturals. When they reach such levels, their efforts are shadowed and they are perceived to be naturals. Derek Sivers, Sir Ken Robinson, Alan Watts, Manu Prakash and many more are all examples of brilliance through sheer effort.
Here's a very simple, but important list of things to help your child grow up believing in themselves:
1. Identify the good. Every child has some favourite interests. Help your child pick up those areas and work on an improved version every time.
2. Identify the not-so-good. Every child also has those tough spots. Your child might show a tendency to avoid these naturally. However, gently insist on working on the difficult tasks or concepts. He/she will make mistakes and have a hard time grasping some concepts. When she makes repeated mistakes, don't express exasperation. Instead, casually mark those as areas that you need to revisit. Encourage your child to mark such areas herself and set a time for grappling again with those concepts. When she gets better, make sure you mention her efforts are paying off.
3. Stop saying "great job". When your child shows you her art work, don't say "great job" blindly and stop at that. Children are far more perceptive than we think and they will easily see through a hollow compliment. Look up from your phone, pause the movie, set the stove to simmer and take a genuine look at her work. Enquire about the thought behind it. If he/she says she made a boat and all you can see is a rectangular lump, tell her what she needs to do to make it more of a boat. If she really has done a great job, take the effort to tell her what exactly you like. She will appreciate the feedback.
In the long run, "grit" is simply a combination of two primary traits - positive self-worth and optimism/hopefulness. These two are important to maintain the mental strength needed to overcome difficult circumstances and to work toward the future. Paying attention to a few things can help raise a generation of "gritty" individuals.
Do you employ any methods to develop positive traits in children? Let us know in the comments below.