How 6 little words can help your kids

Image courtesy of ILCO

6 Famous Words

If you breathe oxygen, it’s possible, very possible, that you’ve been to McDonald’s.

And if you have been to McDonald’s you’ve probably heard what have been called the 6 most effective sales words on the planet. Ever.

You’ll know what they are, because they’ve been trained to ask at every opportunity, so I know you’ve heard them. Here they are… “Would you like fries with that?” Count ’em up. Six. Fantastic.

Interesting what a difference six little words can make.

6 different words

For what we talk about here though, we’re interested in a different set of six. Actually, two sets of six. What we’re going to do is have a look a little more closely at a subject we covered a little while ago, give you the background behind it, some things to do and, for those of you who want some, a little additional reading*.

This little post will rope together some thinking about praise, reward and reinforcement as well as explanatory styles, and introduce some thinking around motivation. For many reasonable parents it will seem common sense. If you come to the view that it really is common sense, good for you. It also shows how far off the mark our current education system is.

If you really, really disagree, love to see your opinion in the comments.

The power of a few short words

To introduce you to how this goes, I need you to come with me to New York, and visit with a class of 5th graders (10-11 year olds). We’re in New York because it’s the home of Columbia University and Carol Dweck, who’s been researching kids and motivation for decades. As you can imagine at this age, these kids are a pretty savvy bunch. What they did, though, was extraordinarily revealing.

The class will get a series of tests, which we’ll break into four parts. Their class isn’t special however, just a class of 5th graders. Altogether, 400 kids will go through the same process.

Part 1

All of the students are given a series of simple puzzles – some easy and some less so. At the end of the test the puzzles are marked, and each kid will get personal feedback on their score. They’ll also get six little words.

As they get their feedback, they’re told:

  1. You must be smart at this, or,
  2. You must have tried really hard

In the first group, you’ll see a reflection of the approach of many contemporary schools which seek to bolster motivation, performance and self-esteem with prizes just for turning up.

You’ll see in the second group the reflection of a brain-based approach, which builds on how the brain learns and the attributions we make.

Immediately after getting their feedback, the students are assessed on how they view this situation; what was subsequently called their mindset.

The group praised for intelligence (being smart at this) were far more likely to agree with concepts like intelligence being fixed, innate, unchanging and so on.

The group praised for effort (trying really hard) were far more likely to see intelligence as changeable.

So far so good. In this research, they came to call these views a fixed mindset or growth mindset. For us here, you can see the attributions these little comments led the kids to make.

Part 2

The kids are given an opportunity to try tougher problems that they could learn from, or easy ones that they’d be sure to get right. Which group did which problems? I’m sure you’re there already.

Yep, the kids praised for effort tried the hard ones. The kids praised for being smart stayed with the easy ones.

Part 3

The kids move to a set of more challenging problems. The kids praised for intelligence are good until the problems start to get hard. And here’s the trick. If success was based on you being smart, and now you’re struggling with these problems, what does that mean…?? It means maybe you aren’t smart. Confidence and motivation plummeted.

The kids praised for effort kept getting better.

Part 4

As the problems got easier again, the kids praised for intelligence did poorly, as against the kids praised for effort. And now, when the kids were asked to report to others what they scored, of the kids praised for intelligence, 40% lied, in order to keep their egos intact.

In the other group, only 10% felt the need to lie about their scores.

And here’s the real kicker…

When the kids are given problems of the same kind as the very first set, of equal difficulty, the effects were staggering. The kids praised for intelligence showed a drop in performance of 20% from their original scores. Just 6 little words.

But for the kids praised for effort, their performance increased 30% from their original scores. Just 6 little words.

And in case you’re wondering, the test has been repeated with kids from age four to adolescence, city kids and rural kids, boys, girls, ethnicities, the whole thing. Same results.

So here’s the take home bit

If you think carefully about what’s happened, you’ll see that Dweck has offered the kids either a stable, internal attribution (you’re smart at this) or an unstable, internal attribution (you tried hard).

You’ll remember that it’s unstable because effort can change, and the reason for success was effort. If I didn’t do as well as I thought, I can try harder next time.

By contrast, if I fail, and success is tied to intelligence… then failure means I’m stupid.

Powerful stuff in just 6 little words, and the implications for us as parents are weighty, particularly if our schools haven’t caught on.

Love to hear your thoughts.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Attributions, Motivation, Fixed mindset, Growth mindset

Tell me what you’ve seen?

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* For a fuller account of some of Dweck’s work, and where I sourced some of this, try here.


About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
This entry was posted in Children, General, Learning, Motivation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to How 6 little words can help your kids

  1. Paula Knife says:

    Where was all this information when I was bringing up kids. Never mind i pass it onto my grandkids and I can also use it on staff as a lot of time they act as though they are children. No Seriously this stuff can be used very effectively with staff. Thanks Brendon it is great info. Paula.

  2. Alex says:

    Fantastic – I will be using those 6 words a lot more often!

    • You know – I’ve done this in various ways, and in all kinds of contexts, including just last night when my 11 year old made meatballs! She went from being moderately interested to wanting to help with the rest of dinner and making suggestions about what we could do. Great to watch.

  3. Joey says:

    Fantastic… glad my son is only one and I have a lifetime to apply!

  4. nardz says:

    Schools have “caught on” … it’s generally a battle with educating the parents to change their language and communication approaches.
    🙂 Nardz

    • Ni Nardz. Thanks for the feedback from the inside! Would it be fair to say that teachers have caught on rather than schools?

      Do you have any school wide education/information programmes for parents so they understand what you’re doing? Keen to hear more…

  5. nardz says:

    After re-reading my comment, it would appear that I sound as though I have just rolled out of bed and am half way through my coffee….
    I love reading your work and I look forward to using your stuff at weekly team meetings.
    Have an awesome day,

  6. Pingback: Building better brains (Part 1 of 2) | Bite sized brains

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