• Amy Viola

Stop telling your child they are special. This is why.

Updated: Jul 2, 2018

I sat in the leader's chair, promoted finally, into the position where I belonged. I started to play, the opening solo of the symphony, and in my head I sounded wonderful. The sound of pure ego. I believed then that I didn't need to practice, because I was told from a young age that I was special. I believed wholeheartedly that I deserved this long before those who promoted me realised it, and I subsequently filled the hall with the sounds of my ego. (A few months later an acquaintance commented that one of the soloists in the symphony that night had sounded embarrassingly like an amateur. I laughed and said yes, the other soloist had had a few slips. I had so completely believed myself until later on I realised she was unknowingly referring to me, and that I had been the one who sounded so poor that night.


What I actually sounded like I'll never know. But I do know that the amateur playing that night was myself. Throughout my performance degree, I rarely listened (I mean really, really listened) to myself play. I looked at myself play, and I listened to other's opinions about my playing. I filtered and formatted the comments into what I wanted to hear. I wasn't stupid, and I was, in fact, talented. But I had just been told all my life that I was special, and therefore had the belief that my talent alone would create my success.


In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck confirms that our mindset, or self-perception, can be dangerously fixed throughout our lives. We may or may not ever be aware of our mindsets, ranging from "I'm a bad parent" to "I can't have a normal relationship". Dweck points out that these "fixed" mindsets impede learning and development, because in our mindset we simply accept us for what we are, with no way to change it.


My caveat is this: where, exactly, do we learn these beliefs? Are we born with it, or do we learn it? Is it nature or nurture? The answer is not a simple one, but there are clearly some attitudes andbeliefs that we all adopt from our parents and teachers.


Thankfully, Dweck has discovered why praise can be damaging to children’s development, and her solution is being employed with huge success in schools around Australia and New Zealand. The solution is to encourage a GROWTH mindset, and to stay clear of praise, feedback and dialogue that reinforce a FIXED mindset.


A FIXED mindset in a child manifests as a belief that their basic qualities, like their level of intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits that can’t be changed. Comments like, “Well done, you are very clever” or “No, that wasn’t a very smart thing to write” are examples of feedback that reinforce a FIXED mindset. The child will remember that label you gave them, and operate within that framework. This, according to Dweck, encourages the belief that talent alone creates success, without effort.   


Instead of asking themselves “Why am I not good at this?” encourage them to ask “What am I missing?”

The nurturing of a GROWTH mindset fosters the belief that abilities can be developed through hard work and dedication. If a teacher points out how hard a student worked to achieve their result, rather than simply calling them smart, the student associates the hard work with achievement. "This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment" writes Dweck.

Think back to how you viewed yourself in primary school. You were part of the cool gang, or you were a music nerd, or you were just no good at sport. You experienced the slightest difficulty with an equation and you decided you’re not good at maths. We have a tendency to operate within a hierarchy and fixed concepts, and to an extent it’s the way we organize the world, and understand our place within it. There may be some truth in your perception, but the constant reinforcement of the belief makes it difficult to ever break out of the mold.




There are a multitude of factors that work to reinforce a fixed mindset on a daily basis. I’m not pointing the finger at teachers and parents for the entirety of the problem. Qualities such as fear of failure, laziness and ignorance are also to blame. All can be remedied by encouraging a GROWTH mindset. In my aforementioned experience, I now know that during my music degree I was working hard to avoid failing by not even trying at all. My false sense of pride veiled my fears, even from myself. With a fixed mindset firmly in place, a self-fulfilling prophecy set to work, and my sense of reality became quite severely warped.


But the purpose of this article is to help us understand the effect that a FIXED mindset has on young minds, and to reintroduce a new framework to nurture a GROWTH mindset.Some steps you can take include focusing feedback around an action that the child can understand.“I like the way you tried all kinds of strategieson that equation till you found the solution” lets them know what they actually didto achieve the solution. “You really focus well and pay attentionwhen you are on the field”. Phrases that encourage reflection and investigationwill help a student to see that there is a feasible, logical path to achievement. “This is a complex question. What else could enhance your answer?” and “Perhaps this may take more time. Let’s identify the steps to achieving your goal.”


Furthermore, encouraging them to ask themselves growth-mindset-based questionswill help them to help themselves, when it comes to challenges that they will inevitably meet as adults. Instead of asking themselves “Why am I not good at this?” encourage them to ask “What am I missing?”. If they make a mistake, encourage them to see how their mistakes help them learn. If they want to give up because it’s too hard, show by example that learning things take time, because you are training your brain. The best teachers I ever had were the ones that taught me how to teach myself!


What we as educators, parents and nurturers can do to encourage our students and children to learn is endless. And telling them they are "special", "smart" or "clever" just ain't any of them.


Amy is a musician, composer and educator living in Australia. Her new songwriting project ‘Amy Viola’ is a uniquely crafted, soulful and raw account of her life as a gypsy musician told amidst sweet vocals and looped layers of deep, rich viola. Find out more at www.amyviola.com


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