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Are You Helping Parents Help Their Children?

Volunteering at an education booth at Minnesota’s State Fair let me observe parent-child interactions as passers-by tried toothpick puzzles along our front counter—quick little exercises in spatial reasoning.

Most parents lovingly encouraged their children, but a few incidents triggered this blog’s topic: Educate parents that math ability comes from hard work. It’s a myth that we either are or aren’t good at math.

Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking research at Stanford, captured in her book Mindset showed that children develop either an effort-based or ability-based mindset toward their own capabilities. An effort-based child says, “If I work hard enough, I can do this”—and often perseveres on difficult tasks. An ability-based child says, “I’m good at [or not good at] this kind of puzzle”—and often shuts down if they can’t succeed right away. How parents and teachers talk about children’s abilities plays a huge role in creating mindsets. (Check the YouTube video Growth Mindsets and Motivation for more information.)

At the fair, I heard parents sabotage their children with comments like, “Let your sister try—she’s the one who’s good at these kinds of puzzles,” “Here, I’ll help you—you’ve struggled enough.” Or, “Why would you want to stop here? You don’t like these kinds of puzzles.” Or, “I was never good at these—don’t worry if you can’t do it.” Or, they simply reached over and did the puzzle for the child. All of these hint that intelligence is fixed—and that the child may fail no matter how hard they try. All of these parents sent the message, “Math isn’t your strong suit.”

Compare this to the parents who waited patiently or followed our example of giving hints that promoted thinking, such as, “How many toothpicks are there? Now, what do you know about squares that might help you solve this?” or “Look again and see if you can tell me which toothpick is positioned differently.”

So, set up a few toothpick puzzles (google the term and you’ll find lots of examples) for your next parent conferences and have them try out these phrases to develop an effort-based mindset:

  • If they struggle with the puzzle, say, “This one might take a bit more time and effort,” rather than, “This one is hard, isn’t it?”
  • Instead of, “You’re so good with these puzzles,” say, “You really concentrate and work hard with these kinds of puzzles.”
  • Instead of, “Here, let me show you,” give a hint that helps them think about it differently.

And, help your students internalize that effort creates ability. My favorite customer? The young teen who systematically worked through each puzzle, taking his time, until his father said, “Come on, everyone else is waiting for us!” The boy replied, “But this is the best thing at the Fair—why can’t I finish?” That father stared at his son for a minute in puzzlement, then nodded and settled into studying the trivia questions at the back of our booth.

Everyone who took time at our booth, and maybe got a few hints that supported independent thinking, solved every puzzle. Effort creates ability—that’s a mindset to work on.

Jane Kise

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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