The Problem with Championing ‘Success’ Over Kid’s Love of Learning

If you saw our blog post about how to raise motivated children, you will be familiar with the concept of the ‘Fixed’ versus ‘Growth’ mindset.

In a nutshell, this distinction in ‘mindsets’ focuses on the idea that what makes people successful is motivation, dedication and commitment, rather than innate ability or intelligence.

And that the former are the qualities that we should be praising and instilling in our children.

A recent article in The Atlantic furthers some of the ideas that come from the Fixed versus Growth mindset model, in what one parent describes as the ‘crime against learning’.

The article suggests that the importance we place on points, scores, grades and concrete signifiers of academic ‘success’ have stifled children’s love of learning.

And the point is, that with all our focus redirected towards these signifiers, we have taken away what is the true, ongoing attribute of success — curiosity, inquisition, and an eagerness to learn.

The parent in the article addresses just what is so problematic about the Fixed mindset model:

‘We taught Marianna [her daughter] that her potential is tied to her intellect, and that her intellect is more important than her character.’

In doing so, she taught her to strive for results (Fixed), rather than knowledge (Growth).

Ultimately, she taught her daughter to fear failure:

‘She knows that if she tries something challenging or new, and fails, that failure will be hard evidence that she’s not as smart as everyone keeps telling her she is.’

This may seem like a dramatic conclusion, but it’s something that’s evident from childhood, and becomes an issue of practicality in later years.

If your child starts playing softball, but can’t hit the ball far enough to make it to first base, should they be encouraged to quit?

It’s one thing if the child doesn’t enjoy the sport. But what if they do, despite their lack of success in the fundamentals of the game?

Perhaps they enjoy the team environment, the rules, the equipment — perhaps they idolise famous players in the sport.

We wouldn’t think of stopping them from playing against their will, just because they aren’t professional athletes in the making.

And even though that child may not be a successful softball player, he will benefit from participating in it in a myriad of ways — they will keep active, demonstrate commitment, improve their fitness, engage in outdoor activities, and socialise on a regular basis.

It’s an intuitive concept, yet one that has been obscured by the overwhelmingly competitive nature of modern education.

If a student isn’t excelling in one subject, they are often encouraged to change into a subject in which they will perform better.

And it’s understandable why this is the case. We’re encouraged to believe that:

  1. To do well at school, you need to get good marks.
  2. To get into university, you need to have done well at school.
  3. To get a good job, you need to have done well at university.
  4. To get a promotion, you need to get good results at work.

It’s a potentially never-ending cycle, that displaces the inherent goals that we should be seeking — educated, curious, knowledgeable children — with essentially arbitrary markers of success.

And while academic success does offer a plethora of opportunities, so does being challenged, so does the thrill of participating in something you enjoy, rather than something you’re good at. So does learning.

So consider this when discussing schooling with your children.

Should they stay in their comfort zone, and have a more predictable and quantifiably ‘successful’ academic experience?

Or should they challenge themselves with something new, something different, something that excites them?

The benefits of the latter are as significant as points and scores.

In more difficult situations, kids are learning and developing important life skills:

They learn to be creative in their problem solving.

They learn the importance of diligence.

They learn discipline and perseverance.

And they learn that being passionate about learning is both a challenge and a thrill worth pursuing.

These are life skills that will benefit them just as much as any score, and will be an ongoing attribute of their success.

So as this one parent did — when you or your child are anxious about the academic pressures they are facing, consider their ‘long-term developmental and emotional needs over their short-term happiness’.

In doing so, they’ll regain their intellectual bravery — and they’ll thank you for it.

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