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Want to Raise Successful Kids? Oddly Enough, Science Says Start Telling Them They Might Fail

One of the best ways to feel your work-life balance is healthy is to feel you’re succeeding as a parent. That you’re helping your children grow up to be happy, fulfilled, independent, and successful. 

According to research on achievement and success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, we tend to fall into one of two camps where our perspectives on talent are concerned.

  1. Fixed mindset: the belief that our intelligence, abilities, skills, and basic attributes are inborn and basically predetermined. “I’m not very smart.” “I’m not good with people.” “I’m just not comfortable with risk.” In short, that we are what we are.
  2. Growth mindset: the belief that intelligence, abilities, skills, and basic attributes can be developed through effort. That we can get smarter. That we can become better leaders. That we can learn to not only accept but actually embrace intelligent risks. In short, that we can be what we work to be.

That difference in mindset is often shaped when we’re kids, usually by the type of feedback we receive. Praising or criticizing outcomes tends to lead to a fixed mindset. Tell me I’m good at science and I’ll start to think my skills are innate; tell me I’m terrible at math and I’ll begin to believe there’s no hope for me.

Praising effort and application tends to lead to a growth mindset. Praise me for working hard on a project and I’ll begin to believe that effort makes anything possible. Praise me for hanging in there even though I initially failed, and I’ll begin to believe that perseverance makes eventual achievement possible. Praise me for taking a risk, and I’ll begin to believe that trying new things — especially things I’m not good at — is a natural step on the road to achievement.

So yeah: Encouragement — the right type of encouragement — makes a huge difference. (Both for kids and for adults.)

A 2018 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that clearly describing the difficulties people will face in achieving a goal can actually increase their level of self-control by helping them persevere when they face setbacks or obstacles. 

I know: Sounds weird. Telling you that you will struggle to accomplish something is far from inspiring or motivating. Yet oddly enough that wasn’t the case.

Participants who were told losing weight would be really hard for them — some were even told their genetics would work against them — tended to lose more weight than the participants who were encouraged.

(Think “Wow, this is really going to suck for you” versus “You can do it!”)

Why? Maybe the “cold, hard facts” group wanted to prove the researchers wrong. Maybe they played the Michael Jordan card by taking the perceived slight personally. Or, more likely, they better understood the reality of the challenge they faced. 

When you’re told something will be easy and inevitably find out it’s not, it’s only natural to want to give up.

Knowing it will be hard? Knowing there will be tough moments? Knowing there will be setbacks? When you expect to face obstacles, finding the resolve to work through those obstacles is much easier.

According to the researchers, “Rather than acting as cheerleaders giving facile encouragement, leaders… might serve (others) better by providing a more sobering description of the challenges.”

Say your child wants to channel his or her inner Warren Buffett and sell chewing gum to the neighbors. Say, “Wow, that’s a great idea!”

But also be realistic. Explain that it won’t be easy. That some people will say no. But that each “no” is an opportunity to learn. To get better at sales. To get better at understanding what people want. That, in adult terms, time and effort leads to improvement and growth.

In short, be encouraging yet also honest. Do that, and initial failures will seem like part of the process. Do that, and roadblocks won’t seem like insurmountable barriers but instead as obstacles to overcome. 

When you’re told something will be easy and then realize it’s not, it’s only natural to want to give up. 

But when you expect to face challenges, finding the resolve to work through those challenges is much easier.

And then there’s this: While walking the fine line between setting realistic expectations and dampening your child’s spirits can be difficult, it’s much easier to stay on the right side of the line if you also explain how you will help your child achieve their goal.

Then, not only will you help your kids develop some of the skills required to be successful. 

You’ll also feel better about your work-life balance.

Because you and your kids will be doing something together.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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