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3 Phrases to Build your Child's Growth Mindset

A growth mindset leads to success in all areas of life, whether it's academic achievement or an accomplishment in a hobby or sport, or in career and relationship building. You read about this, and your mind becomes filled with so many great thoughts and intentions. And you think about how great it would be if you... or if your child... or if you can teach your child to.... BUT ... it often stops there; your thought bubble pops and you put your book or the Kindle down and step back into reality. All those great ideas disappear...until the next time you pick up another book or when you press play on your next podcast that talks about this topic.

writing down thoughts

We all know the value of having a growth mindset, but how can we actually start APPLYING it and having our children ACT UPON it to develop this mindset? To do this, we need to break down some strategies into bite size portions so that we can easily digest and habitually do without requiring too much effort. In this article, I will introduce you to 3 phrases you can start using right away to begin that mindset shift.

In a previous post, I described the four traits to building and fostering a growth mindset to promote a positive learning environment for your child. I refer to those as the four P's which stands for Potential, Positivity, Patience and Perseverance. These 4 P's are the pillars to begin forming the mindset to success and achievement. It is the foundation to building positive change, and without this prerequisite, it is almost impossible to expect success. Like a house without a solid foundation, the house would be good for a few years, but after awhile, it will start to fall apart and be in need of a repair or a complete teardown. We don't want that in our children - and in ourselves. We want our children to keep building on their confidence, learn from their mistakes, and try new things to keep learning and endeavouring to be independent and happy humans.

So now that you understand the 4P's, what's the next step? How do we start to apply ourselves to make this mindset stick around? As Brené Brown - researcher professor and author on courage, vulnerability and leadership- emphasizes in her book Daring Greatly,

"What we know matters, but who we are matters more. Being rather than knowing requires showing up and letting ourselves be seen."

As parents, teachers, and coaches, we are the role models to children. The things we say and do (both directly and indirectly) have an effect on the children. If we want our children to do well in school and become successful and happy adults, we need to set that example and act upon it.

Action sign

So how do we do that? The easiest and quickest change is to start talking differently. What can we say to help our child build confidence and foster that growth mindset? There are 3 phrases you can start using right away to begin that mindset shift.

1. Say "You can't do it YET, but..."

Kids often talk negatively about themselves claiming that they can't do something. If a math question gets too complicated, they say, "It's too hard. I can't do it." Or if they have to write an essay, they may say "I'm no good at writing." They may be trying a new hockey move or a new gymnastics routine, but they can't quite get through it, and they say, "It's too hard. I can't do it".

The next time they say that, respond by adding the word yet. Say, "You can't solve the math question yet, but let's read the question over together again and break down the steps and try it again."

"You're not good at writing yet, but with practice and time, you'll learn about the structure and come up with more great ideas to add detail to your writing."

"That hockey move does look tricky and you can't do it YET, but keep practicing and you'll soon be able to make it look easy."

"Wow. It's amazing that you can do a cartwheel off the beam so well. This new cartwheel back tuck off beam does look much harder to do. You can't do it YET, but with patience and practice, you'll be able to do it. Remember that things start hard before it becomes easy."

You may feel like you already do this, but most of the time, we only half-heartedly reply. You may say, "It's not hard. You can do it." or "Of course you are good at it." This type of response may sound reassuring, but it doesn't offer any tangible advice to the child. They hear this and think, okay, but now what? You need to provide them with an action step to turn that discouraging notion around.

When you use the word "yet" in your reply, it makes you build on your response. And the build up is the part that the child needs to hear. This build up leads the child to commit, and gives them a sense of direction with actionable steps to make the "can't" become a "can". So that's how you can start applying it. By using just one word! Try this the next time you hear them say they can't do something.

scrabble game with the word yet

2. Tell them "mistakes make your brain grow".

When children make mistakes and struggle at something, they easily get discouraged and their emotions take the most of them. The amygdala part of their brain enters the "fight or flight mode" and they go into "flight" and evade the task, and quit. This could also lead to anxiety and stress for your child.

We want their prefrontal cortex (where all the thinking and analyzing and strategizing takes place) to dominate. To train their brain to not trigger that flight or fight response, use reasoning and give your child a mini science lesson. Have them take a breath and reassure them that mistakes make their brain grow. Mistakes are a part of learning, and when we make a mistake or struggle with a task, the synapses are firing. These synapses are the neural connections in their brain, and it is necessary for these synapses to build because it helps their brain "grow". Synaptic connections are where the cells in our brain communicate with one another, and the more connections there are, the better the brain functions.

For the younger kids, you can tell them to imagine that their brain is a playground. In this playground, there are children playing on a slide. The children are taking turns going down the slide and they are having fun.

playground slide

But imagine if more playground equipment comes in, and the children start playing tag together. Wouldn't that be MORE fun? The children are the neurons in their brain. The playground equipment and games added are the synapses and connectors that join the children to play together. When they struggle and make a mistake, the brain works harder to add more equipment to their playground. They are building the ultimate playground in their brains!

Using this analogy, your child sees that in order for more fun to happen, they need to welcome new challenges and mistakes so that their brains form more synapses and connectors to join the neurons together. With this mindset, children learn to approach mistakes with enthusiasm and excitement to learn something different, rather than feel ashamed and hopeless.

playground with happy children

Mistakes make their brain productive and that understanding is the key to motivation. When you tell them the physiological nature of the brain and treat it as a fact, they will learn to understand what is happening in their brain when mistakes happen. With this understanding, both the child and the adult can invest their time to focus on what they can do to improve and learn. With constant reminders that the brain is firing and wiring, they learn to build that resilience to keep trying and not give up.

3. Tell them that "a loss is a gain".

This sounds so cliché, but it's true, and children really need to understand this. We live in such a competitive world where we often lionize the winners and shake our heads at those who are defeated. It's unfortunate that these societal "acceptances" exist, but we can help to break down this misconception and steer them away from these flawed beliefs.

This is especially true in sports where we see parents who want their kids to win ALL the time. How does that benefit them? Okay, so they win. Now what? It's important to humble down a little and acknowledge that failing is just as important. Don't take it from me, this guy said it...

"To learn to succeed, you must first learn to fail." (Michael Jordan)

Failure is an opportunity for redirection. When I teach narrative writing, we talk about the hero's journey. In every good story (whether fact or fiction), the "hero" always begins with a flaw. They begin with an imperfection, a struggle, a skill or trait they want to overcome or pursue. They work on it, and with motivation, encouragement from others, time, and perseverance, they ultimately "save the day" and become a better person. A "hero" doesn't begin perfect. If that's the case, there's no story. The end. A great story - in other words - a meaningful life, begins with the acknowledgement that we can improve and be better. We don't begin at our optimum. Failure is our opportunity to set a goal to improve.

When your child is discouraged because they lost and they hate to lose, acknowledge how they feel, and then, use your four P's ammunition. Be positive and tell them that the loss presented a gain for them. Now they know what they need to improve on and what they need to change for next time. Now they have an interesting story to work on! Tell them that it will take practice and perseverance and patience, but now there's a game plan! Help them outline that path. Teach them to know how to handle and at the same time, fix a defeat.

children in superhero costumes

So a quick recap...use these three phrases to foster your child's growth mindset.

"You can't do it YET, but..."

"Mistakes make your brain grow."

"A loss is a gain."

Keep these three phrases in mind and use them whenever your child starts to talk badly about themselves. With anything new, it often takes a bit of time and practice before it becomes subconscious. It may feel awkward to initially respond this way, and your older kids may look at you funny, but in time, you and your child will acknowledge and act upon the reasoning behind these strategies.

I also need to add that these strategies aren't magical where you use these responses once and your kids will instantly become confident and resilient. You won't see an instant change, but with time, you will see them take on challenges from a different angle and they will work at things a little more and not get frustrated so easily. The ultimate goal is to have them realize this on their own and have them stop giving negative self-talk altogether. When they say these phrases (without you prompting them), pat yourself on the back because you did! Your child has now acted upon the growth mindset! You have achieved in helping your child develop a positive growth mindset.

As you read this, you're thinking, "yes, this makes sense!" But I don't want you to just think that it makes sense. I don't want you to pop that thought bubble and forget about it after you are done reading this. I want you to use theses phrases on your children. Don't keep this to yourself. Share this with your child. Be the role model and make the change to foster a growth mindset.

To help you commit, I've created this simple cheat sheet that you can use to remind yourself of these prompts. You can download it here.

handout about promoting positive self-talk

As a teacher and as a parent, my goal is to help children develop a mindset that enriches them to be successful not only in their studies, but also to anything they endeavour to do. I hope that you find these blogs and tips valuable.

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