Letters from Maine

Learning a growth mindset


“Turns out smarter kids are made, not born.” The headline of the article leapt off the computer screen. Although I realize that it has limits when it comes to dissuading vaccine refusers, I believe that education is a critical element in the success of individuals and the societies they inhabit. However, I must admit to a bias based on my observations that, in general, cognitive skill is inherited. This is an opinion I suspect I share with most folks. You can understand why the article I discovered describing a recent study by several Harvard-based researchers caught my attention.

The study involved 33 mothers and their 1-year-old children. The researchers found that infants whose mothers were stressed and had a “fixed mindset” had lower brain activity than the infants of stressed mothers who held a “growth mindset.” You may be on top of the education literature but I had to do some heavy Googling to learn what was up with growth and fixed mindsets. Was this just a new riff on the whole mindfulness thing?

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

I quickly learned that in 2006 Carol Dweck, PhD, a psychologist now at Stanford, published a book titled “Mindset” (New York: Penguin Random House) in which she described individuals with a “fixed mindset” who believe that their personality or intelligence will not change over time. On the other hand, individuals with a “growth mindset” view their intelligence and personality as malleable. Her observations have spread across the education and self-help literature like a wildfire that has somehow been roaring along under my radar. I guess I have noticed a subtle change in emphasis when I hear some parents and educators praising a child’s effort in situations in which I might have expected them to say, “You’re so smart.” But, in general I have been clueless.

My initial impression was that this mindset stuff was just coining new buzz words to differentiate optimists from pessimists. But, here I am again revealing a fixed mindset bias. I probably should have said that someone demonstrating a growth mindset approach is “exercising optimism” instead of implying that they were simply born with a sunny disposition.

The growth mindset revolution has not been without skeptics and critics, which is not surprising because educators have a history of jumping on bandwagons before all the wheels have been completely tightened. However, the mindset approach does have some merit, especially for individuals in the center of the bell-shaped curve. We all know of individuals who have failed to meet or have exceeded what would seem to be rational expectations. It is likely that the degree to which a growth mindset approach was applied may be the explanation.

Which brings me to the question of whether we as pediatricians should be more careful of how we choose our words when talking to patients and parents. If the results of the study that alerted me to the growth mindset are reproducible, maybe we should be spending more time with new parents (all of whom are stressed by definition), helping them discover ways in which they can improve the situation they find themselves in by praising them for their efforts at parenting.

Should we be modeling growth mindset language by using it when we interact with our patients? For example, not just complimenting a child on the acquisition of a skill but adding that we were even more impressed by the effort required to acquire it. When we hear a parent clearly expressing a fixed mindset in describing their child should we correct them on the spot or make an appointment to discuss how adopting a growth mindset might help their child meet or exceed his or her potential?

Most smart children may be born that way, but there are always opportunities for improvement, and our patients and their parents need to believe that.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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