Don’t Let Old (or Young) Dogs Think They Can’t Learn New Tricks

James Davis

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 mindset style are things like kindness, patience, generosity, compassion, and love. All are virtues that Christ considered to be very important, and all are virtues that can be cultivated and controlled!

Let us return to the story of Jason. Growth mindset praise changed his summer. Since Jason was placing so much value on winning, the counselors and I agreed that we would stop praising winning and consoling those who lost. Instead, we showered praise on anyone who demonstrated even modest amounts of positive attitude or sportsmanship, especially Jason. I recall Jason getting hit by the ball, and his face contorting into sadness. He was managing not to cry, so I ran over and said, “Wow, Jason! You’re showing amazing sportsmanship right now! I’m so happy to see that you realize this game is all about having fun and being nice to each other, and not about winning.” He immediately smiled and said, “Thanks!” Another counselor followed up, saying, “Wow, it’s so much fun to play with people who are such good sports. Thanks, guys!” What followed was positively astounding. Jason changed his attitude almost immediately. He even began praising people for their sportsmanship! We completely stopped keeping track of who won, and had several instances where a victory was handed over at the end of the game to a younger camper. There was even one game where everyone agreed to get out simultaneously so that everyone could win!

When we released campers from valuing themselves based on something they had little control over (winning), and placed value on something they could control (their attitudes), everyone felt free to happily enjoy the event. Each child was capable of receiving equal praise for their attitudes. These attitudes translated directly into the rest of their interactions in seemingly unrelated activities like nature hikes and arts and crafts. Without any forceful language, threats, or dishonesty, an entire group of kids transformed toward compassion in just four days. This is what immersion in a faith community is all about — children showing love and compassion for each other and recognizing that these things above all else are what their leaders value.

When we recognize that God has given children incredible and dynamic gifts, we realize how silly it is to praise them or discourage them for their attributes that seem to be “fixed.” As humans are made in the image of God, our potential is infinite, and any suggestions otherwise are illusory shackles. At our retreat center and summer camp near Syracuse, NY, we refuse to chain children to illusions about what they are inherently good and bad at, and focus instead on helping them show how open ended their wondrous abilities for love and compassion really are.

James Davis is director of program and marketing at the Vanderkamp Christian Center in upstate New York. He blogs about kids, leadership, and camp at The Vanderkamp Method.

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