I just love this post by Salman Khan. He writes about how instead of praising his son by saying “oh, you’re so smart”, he praises his ability to persevere and struggle through challenges.
My husband is a high school math teacher and can tell that most of his students tend to believe that they are either smart or not smart…good at math or bad at math.
During his first year of teaching, a group of students were claiming that a certain subject that he was teaching was too hard. Feeling a little discouraged, he asked me if he could teach it to me. I hadn’t done any math in a really long time so he had to give me some reminders on how to do some basic things, then he taught me the subject. After that, he gave me a quiz. It was challenging. I had to really think about things and ask questions and try to remember things that I hadn’t practiced in about 10 years, but I managed to do really well on the quiz. My husband went back to school, hoping to encourage his students by telling them that I was able to do it and that they just needed to believe in themselves, not be afraid to struggle, ask questions, and try hard. Because if his wife can do it, they can do it too. But many of the kids responded by saying, “yeah, but I bet your wife is smart.” They refused to hear the message that he was trying to send to them. They just don’t think that they are smart, or good at math.
This comes up with kids who haven’t struggled before too. If a student in my husband’s class isn’t doing well, but that student is normally an “A” student, a kid who is “good at math”, sometimes the parents think that it must be the teacher’s fault that the student is not doing well. It’s not possible that the student has come across a subject that is a bit more challenging than they have faced in the past…that the student may have to work a little harder in pre-calculus than they did in algebra. The student is just “good at math” so there is no reason other than a bad teacher that he or she isn’t getting an “A.” Right? 😉
I think both of these stories are great examples of why it is a good idea to praise struggling and perseverance and embrace mistakes. If we teach our kids to enjoy the process of learning, solving problems, asking questions of the world and discovering the answers…to make mistakes and keep going and experience the thrill that comes with figuring out the answer after struggling…to CHOOSE to try things that are not easy…I think we are teaching them a valuable lesson. We are teaching them that they can do things if they try. We are teaching them not to give up easily or decide that they are just “bad” at something. We are teaching them to not just choose to do easy things, but to take on difficult things too…and succeed!
I hate to admit it, but these habits and this mindset are things that I really struggle with sometimes. I find myself making the same goals over and over and consistently failing at them and thinking that I am “just bad at” that thing. But the truth is, I could do those things if I really wanted to. I am lazy though about certain things. I wasn’t really taught to struggle much. There were times that I struggled, sure. But then my mom (who was really fantastic, by the way…not trying to put her down) would maybe say something about my large homework load or stay up really late with me helping me to get it done and come and make sure I got up in the morning and got to school on time when I was exhausted. She didn’t let me fail and learn the consequences. She was a great mom and helped me through my messes…but perhaps I didn’t learn to struggle on my own enough. I didn’t learn how to take responsibility for myself after a failure and fix my own mistakes. I didn’t ever ask teachers for help…partly because I was shy and mostly because I never wanted to admit when I didn’t understand something. I was a “good” student and I was “smart” and asking for help and making mistakes went against this belief I had in myself. Failure was not an option and was my greatest fear. So when I went to college and was one of hundreds of students in giant classes and was not special or “smart”…when I didn’t have someone making sure I did what I was supposed to do and nobody even noticed whether or not I showed up to class…when some classes were more challenging than ever before and I was going to have to try a lot harder than I was used to…I suddenly learned a lot of lessons the hard way. But even though I learned a lot, I still struggle with a lot of these lessons now. How different would my life be if I had learned them when I was a child and developed a different attitude and better habits much earlier in my life? It’s not something I really spend any time thinking about, but I bet things would have turned out at least a little differently. I might not succeed, but I am hoping to let my kids learn these things early on.
So read the article if you haven’t! Let me know what you think. Thanks for reading! 🙂