How We Talk About Failure & Success with Our Kids

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?”

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”.

Growth Mindset: Your Key to Thriving

Teens embody a growth mindset on the high ropes course at Camp Fire Columbia’s Camp Namanu, outside of Portland, Oregon, in August 2017

Do you believe people can change? Do you think we can grow? Do you consider things like intelligence, talents and skills prizes of a random genetic lottery or qualities anybody can develop with time and tenacity?

Camp Fire is built around the belief that we can boost our smarts, develop new skills (or lose them if we don’t practice) and learn new ways to, well, learn.

In the Camp Fire world, mistakes aren’t failures; they are an important part of how we grow.

This approach to life and learning is called a growth mindset, and it permeates Camp Fire’s culture.

In the words of Stanford’s Dr. Carol Dweck, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

Love of learning? Check. Resilience? Yep. We’re all about that. Once kids and teens have found their sparks, a growth mindset arms them with the curiosity and grit to develop them.

How do you know if you have a growth mindset? As yourself a few simple questions (or take Dr. Dweck’s in-depth quiz, if you have more time).

If you nodded yup to 2 and 4, you’re working that growth mindset like a boss. If you answered yeah, probably to 1 and 3, you are likely operating out of a fixed mindset.

  1. When you describe your own skills and talents, do you generally say they are things you were born with…
  2. …or things you worked hard to develop?
  3. When you run into a challenge, do you often blame the problem on a personal lack (“I’m just not creative”)…
  4. …or get curious about what you could change to find a solution?

A fixed mindset is the opposite of a growth mindset. It assumes intelligence and talents are innate: you either have them or you don’t. If we don’t question that mindset, we’re left feeling anxious that we don’t have what it takes to overcome obstacles…and can’t do anything to change those deficiencies.

Fortunately, neuroscience shows us that our brains are malleable. Our brains grow when we use them—just like our muscles. We can teach ourselves to adopt a growth mindset, just like any other skill. We can change! That’s good news because having a growth mindset is scientifically linked to all kinds of great stuff, including higher parental school involvement, the ability to weather traumatic events, and lower rates of childhood depression and anxiety.

We’re going to spend September exploring growth mindsets here on the blog and across our social media accounts. Follow along and join in the #growthmindset conversation!