What was the difference between Michael Jordan and John McEnroe? Why do some people see only failure in themselves and others while other people can see only potential? Why are even positive labels in schools an ultimate hindrance for the individuals who receive them? Dr. Carol S. Dweck of Stanford University says that both positive and negative labels come from the same mindset as held by those who see failure in all and people like John McEnroe, who become caught up in the reasons that others are holding them back. Dwecks research is outlined in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House, New York: 2006).
Dr. Dweck has discovered two mindsets that affect the success of individuals, one for the better and one for the worse. The open mindset reward effort over achievement. It recognized each individual, whether it be on the sports field, in the family or in academic study based on their own personal goals and how hard they work at conquering those goals. The open mindset goals would be effort based, not based on meeting standards or receive accolades.
The closed mindset, on the other hand, creates standards for all people to meet, such as test scores or trophy counts. Those who quickly achieve those standards are labeled smart or athletic or well behaved. Those who struggle to meet standards are label academically challenged, or nonathletic or a behavioral problem.
Who do the labels hurt? According to Dr. Dweck, labels hurt everyone. Those who are labeled unable are hurt as well as those who are told that they are specially gifted to meet the standard. Why? The “unables” are hurt because they are in a sense told, they will never match up to the “ables”. The “ables” are hurt because they will identify themselves according to the things that they are supposed to do well. Once they fail at those things one of two reactions will result. The first reaction is self-defeating. They will have to redefine themselves. When they were once good at the activity, they will now have to admit they are not good. The second reaction is more defensive. Rather than admitting their own failure, they will blame others for their poor showing.
Dweck identifies the bigger problem with the second group. Once a child is placed in a special group they tend to develop an attitude that everything should come naturally. They stop working as had a development which set them up for eventual failure. The failure is very difficult to take because it is tied to their identity.
As a result, Dweck argues against the creation of such programs as gifted and talented classes or special sports leagues because they are used to rate natural ability rather than extraordinary effort. Likewise, she advocates against harsh punishments for failure of meeting standards, including some behavioral standards.
From a Christian point of view I can see many benefits in teaching an open mindset. Still I see some portions of this work that Christians would tend to object to. First, Dweck’s anti-corporal punishment bent has long been a beef of many Christians after all doesn’t the Bible say “spare the rod and spoil the child?” There is a point that Dweck can push this issue too far, still as a children’s pastor I have see that too often punishment, in general, and more particularly corporal punishment are dealt too quickly to specific groups of people. To often parents want to see their children all living to a standard of behavior thus punishing any behavior that doesn’t meet that standard. To offend I see parents labeling their own children as behavior problems and miss the growth moment and value that these children bring to the world, the family and the church. While I don’t advocate never applying corporal punishment, some parents result to it too quickly and for the wrong issues.
Many Christians may also balk at the idea of eliminating the gifted types of programs. I don’t know of any Biblical reason for this, but many conservative Christians demand that we stratify children, assume that stratification is based on hard work, and fear that unifying the children in academic and athletic programs is a slide to socialism. I don’t thing this is the case. Unfortunately, most academic, artistic and athletic programs base their grouping, not on individual effort, but on early signs of “ability”. We create these programs way too early in the lives of the children and measure things that are not consistent with how much work an individual will be willing to put into developing. I’ve seen children as early as 6 years old be placed on special athletic teams because they are a head taller than others. This isn’t the exception unfortunately. This is the truth behind how these decisions are made.
I don’t think that Dweck takes personal bent out of development decisions all together, and we do need to consider how each child is specially designed. Eventually, children who are good in math need a math program that can help them develop, but not at the expense of those who are more or less average. Eventually, children will need different athletic fields to address their sports development, but not based on early detection of “natural abilities” (often read physical development). Rather, children who want to play baseball day-in and day-out should have a field so they aren’t bored or frustrated with those that show up once a week just for fun.
Moreover, I think Christians can find some usual guidance in this book, particularly with regard to spiritual development. The closed mindset is going to look at a specific quality that a child has to determine their value. Too often, in the church, we do this by rating how well a child is behaved while the adults teach or pray, how many verses they can memorize, or how many friends they bring to our church programs. This ignores that some may sit quietly through the prayer time while their minds drift off, while others wiggle and squirm as the try to process the value of prayer. We rejoice when Johnny finished all his verse memorization long before the rest, but need to investigate what value Johnny received from those verses. Or we get frustrated when Sally fails to recite any verses word perfect, but miss the attempt that she makes.
In general, we need to look at the whole person in spiritual development, not the surface. We need to move beyond labeling children as good or bad and work to make all of them better.
Another thing to keep in mind is that spiritual development is often affected by the athletic, artistic and academic labels we give children. These labels will often make children feel that they are good without considering their spiritual growth. More organically, often receiving the honors to be in these special programs or on special teams restricts them for the time they need to work on spiritual matters. Moreover, it creates a pressure for all families to work harder to make sure that their children receive these honors, at the expense of spirituality.
One last interesting side point that I gained from Dweck’s book has little to do with the text. The point comes in the title of two sections. One is titled, “Parents (and Teachers): Messages About Success and Failure;” the next is titled, “Teachers (and Parents): What Makes a Great Teacher (or Parent)?” These tell of Dweck’s wise view of parents. That is, their role is to teach their children well. The Bible makes it clear that the parent is the primary teach of a child. If parents rely on the the teachers to do the job the child will not be properly prepared. When parents take seriously their role as teacher and learn about how to to the tasks involved, children will have the best resources they need for achieving all the God as in store for them.