The Little Engine That Could

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Speaking of toddlers, kids who are eventually able to maximize their talents and strengths possess a vital trait, one they first learned about as toddlers when you read them The Little Engine That Could.  Remember the Little Engine’s Mantra: “I think I can.”  Psychologists would say that this little guy made it over the mountains not because he knew he could, but rather because he thought he could. It is this belief, known as in the clinical world as “self-efficacy,” that keeps kids on track when they feel like giving up—and it is a trait that most opt-outs lack. One way to help them get some of the little engine’s mojo is to talk to them about their “mindset.” According to researcher Carol Dweck, people have one of two mindsets about their abilities. Those with a “fixed” mindset believe they were born with a limited amount of intelligence (or coordination, or musical talent, and so on). People with this perspective do not want others to realize their weaknesses, so they only attempt things they know they can pull off. The “growth” mindset crowd believes that effort and practice makes you smarter, faster, or better. They are not afraid of failure, and they like to step out of their comfort zone—for they recognize that doing so leads to growth.

Most opt-outs have a “fixed mindset”: They are convinced that people are born into this world with only so much intelligence.  Effort will not change that and might actually be a sign of failure, because if you are good at something it should come naturally. This is why Mr. Bare Minimum (which is what one parent I know calls her opting out son) does so little—he interprets frustration as a sign of inadequacy.

Ask your son if he thinks that he can improve his jump shot, run faster, or become an overall better athlete. Chances are he will say yes. Then ask if he thinks he can become smarter.  Chances are that he will say no. Then talk to him about mindsets. Try out these questions and make a ‘growth mindset’ part of the everyday conversation you have with your teen

  1. Do you think your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much?
  2. Agree or disagree: “You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are?
  3. Agree or disagree: “No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it a bit.


.  Asking “what did you learn today” rather than “how was school?” is not only a better conversation opener, but also offers the possibility of reinforcing a growth mindset.  Talk about mistakes you made and the lessons you learned from them.  When my kids were younger we would open our Friday night dinner discussion with the question “What new thing did you try or learn this week?”

For more about mindsets check out Carol Dweck’s  book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” or check out her website:


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