Now, a fascinating new study suggests it's true.
It's partly about the power of positive thinking, but it's more focused than that, and it's literally about a specific phrase (or perhaps other phrases that mean the exact same thing).
No need to hide the ball here. The magic words that resulted in kids boosting their performance, according to the study were simple.
They just had to learn to recite quietly to themselves: "I will do my very best!"
Not 'I am very good at this!'
The study appears in Child Development, which is a journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.
Researchers selected 212 middle school students in the Netherlands, and divided them into three groups. They asked all the students how they felt about their math ability, and then had them take a standardized math test.
There one real difference among the three groups of students was what the researchers asked them all to do at the halfway point of each test:
- Group 1 was asked to quietly recite a self-affirmation focused on effort, along the lines of "I will do my very best!"
- Group 2 was asked to quietly recite a different kind of self-affirmation, based more on competence, like "I am very good at this!"
- Group 3 wasn't asked to recite anything or to engage in any kind of self-affirmation at all.
The results were striking. Group 1 students, who engaged in effort-related affirmations, did better on their tests than Group 2 students who engaged in competence-related affirmations, or Group 3 students who did no affirmations at all.
The most marked improvement was among Group 1 students who had reported ahead of time that they did not feel confident in math, and who were asked to engage in effort-based affirmations at the midway point of the test).
"Self-talk about effort is the key," said study coauthor Eddie Brummelman, assistant professor of child development at the University of Amsterdam.
Fixed vs. growth mindset
The European researchers were quick to point out their study's limitations.
They only tested middle school students in Holland, for example, so they can't say whether the findings would be applicable to students of other ages or in other countries
However, on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, the study squares nicely with the truly fascinating work of Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, who has written on the differences between fixed mindsets and growth mindsets in children.
- a fixed mindset is the belief that positive traits (like intelligence, for example) are almost entirely innate. Either you're born with great smarts and the ability to achieve, or you're not.
- A growth mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that achievement is variable, and that intelligence and problem-solving abilities can be developed over time.
A 2 year study
A few years back, Dweck's team decided to study 373 middle school students.
Instead of trying to get some of them to act in a way consistent with growth mindsets or fixed mindsets, they tried to identify which students exhibited each type of mindset on their own.
Once they identified the cohorts, they found that these mindsets led kids to act in predictable ways:
- Students with fixed mindsets had one goal in mind, as Dweck put it: "Look smart at all times and at all costs." So, they tried to avoid tasks that might show they weren't as smart as they thought they were.
- Students with growth mindsets, on the other hand, didn't care if they made mistakes. They saw this as inevitable, and demonstrated that their goal was to "learn at all times and at all costs."
- Students with fixed mindsets came to believe that working hard was actually a bad thing, because it risked failure. Coming up short demonstrated (to them) that the person didn't have innate ability.
- Growth-mindset students, on the other hand, believed that effort was what was required to unlock ability.
- Students who demonstrated a fixed mindset were far more likely to complain of being bored in school.
- Growth-mindset students, on the other hand, looked at schoolwork as a series of challenges and puzzles to figure out. And, they were less likely to blame others if they had difficulty.
Even younger kids
Dweck has some specific advice for parents. In short, it comes down to how you praise your kids, which is what links this so clearly to the European study.
- Praising kids merely for their innate abilities, such as their intelligence, actually makes it less likely that they'll grow up to enjoy learning and to excel.
- Praising kids instead for the strategies and processes they develop to solve problems--even when they don't fully succeed--makes them more likely to try harder and ultimately achieve.
Dweck also found that the effects of each type of praise resulted in perceptible differences even when we are talking about children as young as 1 to 3 years old!
Every time I've written about this before, I wind up getting emails and comments from people who wish to high heaven that their parents had praised them like this when they were kids.
It's one of those things that just makes sense, and becomes impossible to ignore once you've heard of it.
None of us seems to know how to do it automatically.
Instead, it comes down to the exact same message you're trying to give your kids:
Work hard. Don't give up. And have faith that you'll figure it out.