How We Talk About Failure & Success with Our Kids

(Photo credit: Camp Fire Gulf Wind in Pensacola, Florida, Aug. 2017)

Current research shows that our intelligence isn’t fixed - it can actually change!

How? One of the keys to success in both school and life is adopting a growth mindset.

Camp Fire believes it is important to help the kids and teens in our lives - and even ourselves! - believe that they have the ability to change and learn.

As we’re growing our positive brain muscles, it’s important to pay attention to how we encourage young people. A few simple shifts in the way we talk about both mistakes and successes can significantly alter kids’ mindsets.

Making the Most of Mistakes

It’s tempting to go into sympathy mode when a kid or teen in your life is recovering from a setback. But research reports that offering too much consolation can distract kids from the valuable lessons the mistake presents.

In fact, one study showed that when teachers had a comfort-oriented response to a low math score (“It’s ok. You’re better at other subjects,” for example), kids came away from that interaction with lower expectations for themselves and lower motivation to learn. They heard the implied message—you’re just not good at math, and that’s OK—loud and clear.

As other social scientists put it, “It is possible that adults’ attempts to comfort children may hinder the learning process by influencing the extent to which children attend to and make sense of their mistakes. That is, adults may inadvertently distract children from learning from their errors.”

Instead of trying to make kids feel better immediately when they hit a roadblock, congratulate them on taking a risk. Then encourage them to pay more attention, not less, to the mistake, setback or obstacle.

“If they are upset because they cannot do something, then we do a lot of encouraging,” says Pamila Townson, Director of the Camp Fire Century Youth Learning Center (Camp Fire Gulf Wind).

Pamila suggests using phrases like:

  • “Look how far you have come.”
  • “I bet if you keep practicing you will be able to do even better the next time.”
  • “Let me know if you need help—it is ok to ask for help!”

Pamila says they encourage kids to use their Spark to help them set goals, make plans and move forward.

Angela Dikes, VP of Professional Growth at Camp Fire First Texas, agrees. “I would emphasize the message that it’s time to try again. Let’s talk about what the next step might be.”

When encouraging kids to think about what’s next—new strategies, more training—Angela uses questions like:

  • “Is seems like that didn’t go your way. What do you think happened?”
  • “What do you think you would do differently next time?”
  • “What do you need?”

Photo credit: Camp Fire First Texas, Camp El Tesoro.

Praising the process

Now that you’ve got your setback conversation game on lock, let’s look at how to celebrate a growth mindset in times of success.

Some of our go-to compliments (“You’re so smart!” “You’re so talented!”) are based in a more fixed mindset. Without meaning to, we’re commenting on what someone is instead of what they’ve done, practiced or learned. When we shift the way we praise to honor the effort, tenacity or courage someone has put into their success, we can build a growth mindset, instead.

Instead of praising who a quality, try to switch to complimenting a kid’s process.

“We work to encourage kids rather than just praising them,” Angela says. “We praise effort, strategies and progress, not intelligence or abilities.”

Pamila offers these growth-mindset encouragements:

  • “I can tell you practiced a lot!”
  • “I can see the effort you put into your work”
  • “Thank you for trying hard.”

“Encourage them to set goals and give them tools to overcome challenges in everyday life,” Pamila says. “Stress the importance of practice, adjustments, effort, and commitment. With these all things are possible.”

For more great growth mindset advice, check out The Search Institute’s charts on “Cultivating Growth Mindsets” and “Praise Pointers for Parents and Teachers”.