Children develop their personality with you, because of you, and despite you. As parents, you have an enormous influence on this personality development and while a child’s skill and thrill are important, you will be known more in terms of the personality of your children than anything else. These personality or disposition aspects relate to what we are ‘willing’ to do, hence the development of the ‘will’. Over the decades, researchers have converged on the Big Five personality attributes (although of course there are squabbles).
The Big Five are:
- Extraversion – the level of sociability and enthusiasm
- Agreeableness – the level of friendliness and kindness
- Conscientiousness – the level of organization and work ethic
- Emotional stability – the level of calmness and tranquility
- Openness to experiences – the level of creativity and curiosity
All five relate positively but modestly to optimum parenting. One study, for example, looked at the relation of the Big Five to the three major dimensions of the parent-child relationship: warmth, control, and autonomy.7 Parents scoring high on these three relationship skills may be more able to initiate and maintain positive interactions with their children. In addition, parents who score higher on agreeable- ness and emotional stability are more supportive of their children’s autonomy. However, none of the correlations are high enough to put an over-reliance on the personality of the parents.
Similarly, it is hard to claim that a child’s personality relates to desirable school outcomes – but to dismiss personality altogether would be to miss the major point. Developing these five factors is worthwhile because it is hard to find evidence that children with lower scores outperform those with higher scores on any socially desired correlate, outcome, or valued attribute in our society. To increase their life chances, you want children to be sociable, friendly, have a work ethic, be calm, and be open to experience.
There is one personality attribute that has a higher relationship with school learning – and that is self-confidence: the confidence to take on challenging tasks, the confidence to seek help, the con- fidence to work with others to achieve outcomes, the confidence to see themselves as learners, and the confidence to seek and action feedback. The aim is to raise children who are not afraid of being wrong, being challenged, or failing: that is, raise children who dare to be wrong, dare to be challenged, and dare to fail (and learn from this failure). It would not be a challenge if there were no risk of failure. The art is to help your child set challenges according to the Goldilocks principle: not too hard, not too easy, and not too boring.
Watch your child play video games – they set themselves high challenges. This is partly because they know that when they fail they will not be told off or be told they are stupid; partly because they know there are multiple opportunities to practice and learn from playing the game; partly because they are aware of when good is good enough (the notion of success is getting to the next level); and partly because there is no fun playing if the game is too easy. So why not apply these principles in other aspects of their life – school learn- ing, tasks around the house, interacting with siblings, and so on.
Teach your child how to set Goldilocks’s criteria of success, give them oodles of options to practice and learn from practice, teach them to monitor their performance relative to the notion of success, and never diss on them when they fail – failure is their best friend as a learner. If instead, you scowl at failure, berate the child if not successful, do not provide teaching or time to succeed, don’t be sur- prised if your children set safe targets, shy away from challenges, and create safe bubbles in which they work. The result will be a failure to develop the core features of being a successful learner.
One of the current claims is that parents need to teach their stu- dents to have grit and to adopt a growth mindset, as this is considered the basis for developing the child’s sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Yes, ‘grit’ and a ‘growth mindset’ are important. However, these terms are often poorly understood.
Carol Dweck has pioneered the research on growth mindsets and Angela Duckworth has promoted grit as a core notion underlying suc- cess.8 Both have been at pains to note that we all exhibit both growth and fixed mindsets, and also that grit has a rightful (and wrongful) place (note, that criminals and some ‘naughty kids’ can show high levels of grit). What matters is how children think in times of adver- sity, failure, and error and when confronted with new and challenging problems and situations: It is in these situations that everyone, children included, needs to display grit (determination) and a growth mindset.
The reason most programs for developing growth, resilience, grit, and mindfulness show small effects is twofold: first there is an opti- mal time to use these attributes, and second, most programs aim to teach these attributes in generic programs but the generalizations fail to transfer to specific situations: we can watch these same students improving their skills on the generic program but then go back to music, physical education, or math and still believe they ‘cannot do these subjects’. Indeed, Carol Dweck has described how she killed the first such program (Brainology) because, while it was possible to increase the desired attributes, they failed to transfer to particular situations. She is now working on a more set of programs that are set in various contexts to develop growth thinking. There is an optimal time to use a growth mindset and understanding when to employ it is crucial: when your child fails, is confused, anxious, struggling. Hence, we need to be particularly mindful when your child is in this situation to ensure we see it as an opportunity to learn and improve, and not a time to scold because they did not do it right or ignore by praising the effort. Failure needs to be a learner’s best friend.
Perhaps if growth and grit are seen as components of high levels of self-confidence to achieve success on tasks, it will help put these two important concepts into the right perspective. If you ask your child to accomplish a task (e.g., ‘clean your room’), the core ques- tion is whether they have the confidence that they will succeed. So you may need to be more specific about what success looks like before they start (and not measure success in terms of time spent on the task, how much pain and complaining they express, or the opposite – whether they enjoyed the task): Children need to know when they have done a good enough job for it to be considered a success. Then they understand how much ‘grit’ is needed to suc- cessfully complete the task. There are times when a child’s grit may stop them from learning because sometimes they can be gritty about the wrong stuff; for example, they can hang on to failed strategies and then finally say ‘I cannot do this’. Note, that the core notion within good grit is conscientiousness to attend to the task, to seek help, and to learn to monitor progress towards success. Therefore, make the notion of success as transparent as possible, give feedback about the progress towards this success, be available when your child seeks or needs help, and help them persist on the task – in that order and not the reverse.
When children lack the confidence to achieve success, they can often adopt fixed mindsets and blame others, claim they do not have the skills, and avoid engagement. Set smaller steps to lead to success, think about the skills needed for small wins and teach these skills, and value progression towards success – this will reduce anxiety and increase confidence, helping develop a growth mindset so they can overcome their prior belief that they could not do the task.
Remember, developing these skills is best undertaken with tasks your children feel most uncomfortable with, and where there is a high sense of challenge and risk of failure. The development of these skills can occur early in the child’s learning. Carol Dweck and col- leagues9 showed that children who chose, or were allowed by their parents, to stop trying to complete a difficult puzzle were more likely to believe that they were incapable of finishing the task and had lower expectations for future performance than those children who chose to persist or were assisted to persist.
If parents then criticized the work of the non-completers, these children lowered their originally positive evaluations of their work and were less likely to say they would do that type of work again less likely to come up with constructive solutions for improving their criticized products. Younger children see their work as ‘bad’ and as they get older they see this as their lack of ability to learn the skills needed to complete the tasks. Developing confidence, growth mind- sets, and grit to achieve worthwhile tasks starts early and is very much influenced by the parents’ reactions to failure.
Jessica Lahey wrote a book on the ‘gift of failure’ and noted how hard it was for her to stop equating the act of doing things for her children with good parenting, but instead, that good parenting was leaving them to do the things they could do for themselves.10 She dis- cusses how parents’ fear of failure undermines school work, and how, for children to become masterpieces, their flaws must be allowed to remain, and serve as an essential part of their tale.
Make failure the best friend of learning. Put this poster from Michael Jordan on your wall or one citing Serena Williams ‘A champion isn’t about how much they win, it’s about how they recover from their downs, whether it’s an injury or whether it’s a loss’.
Michael Jordan’s concept of learning from errors:
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
This is a major reason to be wary about praising the ‘child’ while AT THE SAME TIME providing feedback or comments on their work or activities. They recall the part that is about them – the praise – and overlook the feedback on their work. Give lots of praise, yes, but separate it from feedback about the task. Do not dilute feedback about a task with praise about the person doing the task. Too often the praise reinforces the notion that it is something within the child that caused the lack of learning, whereas we want our children to realize that while they may not yet be reaching a particular level, with openness to teaching they CAN learn and complete tasks to higher levels of performance.
Bottom line: In times of not knowing, struggle, and errors chil- dren need to be taught that these are opportunities to learn, and NOT statements about their limits, capabilities, or lack of skill to learn. As we’ve said before, failure must become a learner’s best friend. Parents who only seek to correct or who expect perfect per- formances are failing their children. Parents who do not themselves learn in the face of adversity provide poor role models. Learn to fail and enjoy learning from the failure with your children. That is how you develop the mindset that it can be done, it is worth investing in trying harder tasks, it is worth taking on more difficult challenges, and it is worth focusing on learning, learning, learning.
Professor John Hattie is a renowned researcher in education. His research interests include performance indicators, models of measurement, and evaluation of teaching and learning. John Hattie became known to a wider public with the publication of his two books, Visible Learning and Visible Learning for Teachers, the result of 15 years of research. The books are a synthesis of more than 800 meta-studies covering more than 80 million students. The Visible Learning series has sold more than 1.5 million copies and has been translated into 29 different languages. TES once called John “possibly the world’s most influential education academic.” He has been Director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, since March 2011. Before, he was Project Director of asTTle and Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, Canada. You can find the full CV of Professor John Hattie (PDF) at the website of the University of Auckland. Professor John Hattie’s new book, 10 Steps to Develop Great Learners [Routledge Press] is available on April 8, 2022. Kyle Hattie is a Year 6 Teacher working in a Primary School in the Northern Suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. Over his 10-year career, he has taught at many year levels, from Prep to Year 6 in both Australia and New Zealand. Kyle has held various leadership titles and has a passion for understanding how students become learners. Kyle Hattie’s new book, 10 Steps to Develop Great Learners [Routledge Press] is available on April 8, 2022.
By John Hattie and Kyle Hattie