Family Life, Parenting

Learning Years: Helping Your Child Appreciate Disappointment and Defeat

November 1, 2020

Helping your child build a growth mindset with the “power of yet” 

In the movie Talladega Nights, arrogant race car driver Ricky Bobby said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” This statement sums up the prevailing view of competition today. At the same time, educators and business leaders are turning away from this rigid view. Instead, the growth-oriented approach of Professor Carol Dweck is gaining steam.  

Growth-Oriented Mindset 

Specifically, Dr. Dweck’s work focuses on a growth-oriented versus a fixed mindset. When the end product of a task is a trophy or an A+ grade, the potential is limited. Children may resist trying a new strategy or challenging endeavor because they fear failure (“what if I don’t win?”). However, failure teaches valuable lessons if we don’t surrender. From disappointment and defeat, we may be motivated to attempt new strategies.  

Effortful problem solving and a level of frustration stimulate brain cell (neuron) activity and neural connections. These neural networks represent ideas and innovation. When we have to, we may discover that we are capable of more significant effort and courage.  

If our goal is earning an A+ or trophy, we may stop short of more significant results. Staying in a safe zone prevents the full realization of our abilities or the power of what is possible. People who never fail are probably not living up to their full potential.   

Building a Growth Mindset 

Dr. Dweck teaches failure is not an ending. She urges us to recognize what is possible if we keep trying, calling this the “power of yet.” When a child fails or comes in third place, congratulate her on the effort; ask her what she learned and how she will approach the challenge next time. Help her see that defeat is a gift of self-discovery and learning. Asking these questions encourages a growth mindset that she can apply to other challenges. If your child says, “I can’t do it,” reframe this statement by replying, “Not yet.” 

Another way to build a growth mindset is to praise more effectively. Learn to praise children for the process of the task, not the end product. Remark on effort, strategy, and perseverance, not grades or winning. Focus less on ‘now’ and more on what is possible. 

Encourage your child to try new things and to lean in when challenged with a problem. When a toy or task frustrates your toddler, resist the urge to solve it for them. Bring him back to the job, encourage him to try again. Change the position of the toy, or suggest a new way to approach it. If he still doesn’t succeed, say, “not yet; you’ll get it next time.”

Awards and Trophies 

Don’t get me wrong, awards, A’s, and trophies are undoubtedly great. But be aware of the limitations that external reinforcement imposes. Rewards are meant to encourage effort but should not be the ultimate end. When your child wins, ask what she learned from the experience, or what inspired her. Then praise her for this, not for the trophy itself. If she worked diligently but had a disappointing result, emphasize her effort and courage to try.   
Sometimes a grand failure﹘or two or three﹘is the sign of a growth-oriented path. A child should not be limited to winning; it is best for them to be inspired to shoot for possibilities. At the end of the day, we want to raise children who are in the process of advancing their grit and potential. It is this, rather than the immediate reward, we must focus on to accomplish this goal. 

Dr. Pat BlackwellDr. Pat Blackwell is a licensed psychologist who has worked with families for over 30 years. See her website for more information and her blog: 

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