Parenting: Malleable Mindets

For my cognitive science class, I was reading about classing personality traits like happiness, resiliency, and helplessness into two mindsets derived by how people thought of themselves. There’s the fixed mindset, when somebody believes that their qualities are carved in stone. It can create an urgency for that person to prove themselves over and over. The second mindset (which in this context is the advantageous one) is the malleable mindset. People with malleable mindsets believe that cherished qualities can be developed through effort and dedication.

Also, there was an experiment done gauging the effects subtle linguistic cues in praises could have on children’s motivations. Imagine that you had kids A and B, who are instructed to draw a picture. Kid A is given a generic praise, “you are a good drawer.” Kid B is given a more specific, non-generic praise, “you did a good job drawing.” The study showed that children like kid B who were given non-generic praises had less extreme emotional reactions to criticism and were motivated to correct themselves. While when children like kid A were criticized, they started to cry and gave up drawing. I feel that what contributed most to those outcomes is that giving generic praise, or even too much praise, implies to children that they have a stable ability that underlies their drawing performance. They become emotionally attached to that identity that they are stably good drawers. Mistakes then reflect on that stable ability, and can demoralize their perception of their ability. However, what makes the non-generic praise not so generic (haha) is that it comments on a specific instance of drawing, not the child’s skill of drawing itself. ex. “You did a good job drawing that yesterday” vs “you are such a talented drawer!” so the child doesn’t attach as strongly to this identity as a “good” drawer. They can then continue along with their lives drawing, still motivated to correct their mistakes and become better.

I thought it’d be interesting to bring these findings together and think about how I would raise my own kids to develop malleable mindsets. So that in the long run, they won’t be overwhelmed by emotional distress and will be able to jump into any field (whether it be academic or not) with the confidence that they can master it. When a child receives a lot of affection from, let’s say, a mother, the child will naturally grow close to her and come to her in times of loneliness and stress, kind of like a secure base.  There was a study discussing the behavior of these securely attached infants. In an experiment, a group of infants A were conditioned to not see their mothers as secure bases, and the scientists recorded how their behaviors when their mothers left the room they were in (how long they would at her after she left). The group A of infants made no discrimination to their mothers when they left the room; they even showed signs of surprise when their mothers came back. These infants had different expectations about caretakers than babies who were trained traditionally to go to their mothers in times of stress. I think this relates to the idea of attaching to an identity in the second experiment. However, rather than attaching to an internal identity, the child can become attached to an external entity (in this case, a parent). And if a child is pampered heavily, he or she will become dependent on somebody else, which I feel will perpetuate a fixed mindset. So how should we go about parenting? Do we have to sacrifice some of our attention for the long-run goals of independence and malleable mindsets?


Author: Sam Shih

Hi I'm Sam! I'm from San Francisco, California and am currently a sophomore at Swarthmore College interested in Computer Science, Philosophy, and Religion. On campus I sing in the choir, give massages to stressed students, and lift weights. You can catch me crawling the interwebs or writing about positive psychology, self improvement, and my college experience on my blog (

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