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Don’t Let Old (or Young) Dogs Think They Can’t Learn New Tricks
Imagine someone approached you on the street and said, “Listen to these facts — your abilities and tastes will never change. You will never improve or get worse at anything. You will have precisely the same skills today as you will fifty years from now.” You would think they were insane, right? I know I would get indignant. I might respond with a stern, “You don’t know me!” I think about the language adults use with children, and I wonder if we aren’t just those insane strangers, approaching them with wild assumptions and absolute claims. And what if children believe these claims?
Consider the story of a child we’ll call “Jason.” Jason came to Vander-kamp very excited to play one of our most popular games: GaGa. I found this to be odd, because Jason was never more upset than when he played GaGa. If a bad event happened in a game, he would sit down in a heap, sobbing into his hands. When asked what was wrong, he would scream accusations at other players and curse his misfortune. Even “winning” the game provided him no great relief, as a win was seen as something that should happen, not as a special occurrence. It was easily the most glaring example of bad sportsmanship I have ever seen.
Well, another counselor and I got our heads together and discussed this extreme case. By the end of summer camp Jason was sincerely telling other children “Nice job!” when they got him out, and on more than one occasion purposefully allowed a younger child a victory when winning would have been easy! How did our “bad sport” show such dramatic change in so short a time? We tried to help Jason unlearn some of the dangerous lessons from his past.
One of the most important steps to helping children take a retreat from negative illusions about themselves is intentionally looking at how we communicate with them. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, made an important contribution to child development theory in her 2006 book, Mindset. She suggested that many people suffer from the idea that there are “fixed” qualities about us that are unchangeable. One with a fixed mindset believes that there are many innate qualities about people, that when taken as a whole, sum up a person’s total worth. Many people have a tendency to think they have a determined amount of academic ability, or creativity, or patience — when in fact we have plenty of evidence that suggests all of these virtues can be actively cultivated.
So why do people hold on to the illusion that these things are fixed? Dweck suggests that people are constantly communicating “fixed mindset” ideas to children throughout their young lives. We say things like, “Wow, you are so smart!” when a child accomplishes a task easily, thinking we have done a nice thing in affirming them. We will tell a child how adorable she is when she is wearing a new dress. On the surface, these seem like nice things to say. I certainly recall times in my life where I had warm feelings upon being given similar compliments. The subtext of these compliments, however, tells a totally different story. Take the child who was told how smart she was for accomplishing a task easily. This child has received praise for something she had absolutely no control over. She has been led to believe that accomplishing something quickly means she is smart, and that that is a very good thing. But what about when she encounters a task that can not be accomplished easily? She will often resent the challenging task because it cannot be completed easily, and she will feel that it is an affront to what she believed was a permanent and very important part of her. Often times she will ignore the challenging task and find a task that reaffirms what she has been told about her smartness. The alternative is despair and helplessness.
Dweck gives us the tools to avoid such an existence, and at our camp we employ them very seriously. You see, there are plenty of things you can affirm kids about that they are fully in control of and that are fully virtuous. We call praise of these types “growth mindset” praise, after Dweck’s book. Virtues that can be praised in a growth mi