I can’t!

I’ll never get it!

It’s too hard!

I’m just not going to try!

As parents and/or youth advocates, we have all probably heard (or said??) these exclamations come out of the mouth of a hurting and frustrated child or teen.  There is a lot of fear backing those often plaintive and sometimes angry sounding phrases.  Fear that we can help eliminate with some incredibly simple adjustments in our mindsets and how we praise the children and youth in our lives.

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University did a fascinating study on how to help kids tap into motivation and determination as well as embrace challenges.  Through her work, she explores what she calls the Fixed versus Growth Mindset.

Simply put, a fixed mindset is the idea that we have a set level of intelligence and natural ability that will remain relatively stable throughout our lives, but is also something we can’t change or increase. A growth mindset on the other hand is the idea that natural ability and intelligence are fluid.  Given enough work and effort, anyone can be awesome at anything.

When we hear I can’t or I’ll never get it, that is our cue, as an adult, that the child or youth before us is operating in a fixed mindset. The fear they are feeling is based on enormous pressure to perform and get it right, RIGHT NOW, since they have an underlying belief that talent or ability can’t be increased. Every challenge becomes a judgement on that fixed ability and thus personal identity.

Wow! I know I don’t want that for the children and teens in my life and I’m sure you don’t either!

The key to helping kids and teens make a shift in mindset is incredibly simple.  All we need to do is make a slight adjustment so we emphasize the value of effort and the belief that with enough work a future goal can be accomplished. As we do this, we release the pressure off the outcome of a challenge and place the focus on putting in the work of practicing, performing, learning, etc. If ability can be improved and if talent is malleable and can be earned through effort, then motivation to keep trying in the midst of challenges becomes the most important thing. The immediate outcome holds less value as learning and process are celebrated. This sets kids free!

So how does praise fit in here? As we shift to a growth mindset, we will start emphasizing effort and work as more important than the immediate outcome.  We need to make sure our praise reflects that adjustment. How do we do that? Focus praise on effort, work and strategy instead of intelligence, natural talents or the right answer.

It takes some practice and awareness to consistently praise effort, work and strategy, but I can share from my own experience the effort is worth the reward. When I shifted how I praised my kids, it was as if a huge weight was lifted off of them.  A weight I didn’t even realize was there. Suddenly a most hated instrument or class subject became a favorite . . . a mistake was a learning opportunity not a personal judgement. Learning became fun, challenges were exciting and freedom to be in process was celebrated. My kids were free to be kids.


Sources: ALC 2.0 TS3 Coach Training Notes,  The power of yet by Carol S Dweck

Brenda is a certified ALC coach and trains youth advocates in the ALC 1.0 coach training program. For more information about this program or about how to train as a coach, please contact us.