Parenting for a Healthy Brain
Five tips towards a growth mindset and the road to resiliency
What if we were taught early on to treat our brain as a muscle? Mental push-ups, cranial crunchers, cerebellum sit-ups. Well, not quite. But renowned Stanford psychologist and best-selling author Carol Dweck would like us to think differently about this vital organ. The brain is a pattern-seeking device and like a physical muscle, the more we use it the stronger it gets.
Dweck’s research the “growth mindset” believes that intelligence can be developed through hard work, strategies, and help from others. This is because of brain plasticity — the brain’s ability to be malleable, grow, and change. This flies in the face of the previous acceptance that intelligence is a fixed trait at birth — hence, the old IQ test that culls out the smart ones from the rest of the pack before youngsters really have a chance.
Not that long ago scientists thought the brain only changed in early childhood. But recent research shows that the brain continues to change as people age. When we do something enough times, our brain cells — neurons — make connections and form neural pathways. This is how we improve at things, and there are lots of opportunities here. With 100 billion neurons in the brain — about as many as there are stars in the Milky Way — we can create an entire galaxy of connections that will strengthen the brain.
Dweck’s model lays out the differences between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Why do some people reach their full potential while their equally talented peers stall or fizzle out? The answer lies partially in how we define ability. Is ability something inherent that you demonstrate and maybe even use to skate by or do you believe its something to be developed? Think — learning goals vs. performance goals? For example, will this A on my essay make me look smart or will I actually learn something from researching and writing the paper?
Why is this important for raising children?
The belief that you can’t do something because you don’t have natural ability limits motivation and achievement. Conversely, if you believe talent will take you all the way, you’re likely to plateau and miss out on reaching your full potential. The brain is super powerful! It produces enough electricity to power a lightbulb! That’s lots of untapped promise if not intentionally developed.
Here are five things parents can do to promote a growth mindset.
> Explain brain plasticity to your children in an age-appropriate way. Help them understand that the brain is malleable and can change throughout our lives. Just like when we exercise our biceps, our arms get stronger; the brain gets stronger with effort.
> Focus your praise on the process and hard work and not on ability or the end result. Instead of saying, “You are so smart, I knew it.” Say, “I like that you kept working at this and figured out the best way to approach the problem.”
> Celebrate mistakes. Explain that missteps help the brain grow. Neural pathways are strengthened by our repetition of a task or finding a new way to do something. Your personal beliefs about failure can affect the way you parent, and whether your child sees their setbacks as personal failures and a lack of ability, or as a problem to solve and a challenge to work harder.
> When your child misses the mark, offer constructive feedback that focuses on fixing the problem rather than offering a label or letting them dismiss the activity altogether. Pursue a solution together.
> Having innate talent is not a goal, but developing skills and gaining knowledge is.
Be careful of constantly labeling your child as bright. This may lend itself to a fixed mindset by draining their motivation and love of learning and stunting their performance. Praise for hard work, effort and problem-solving inspires resiliency, self-confidence, and a passion for lifelong learning.