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Parents' beliefs about failure are crucial for kids.

Most parents hope that their children will grow up to be intelligent – even if their perspectives differ as to what exactly ‘intelligence’ means. You hope your child will have the ability to learn and understand how to deal with trying situations, to think abstractly, to acquire new knowledge and skills to make a difference in their environment.

The question, of course, is how to support your child to thrive in this way. And according to new research, the key to success might be the attitude parents have towards failure.

Specifically, parents who are comfortable with failure, and focus on learning from it, pass on a healthy mindset to their children that intelligence is something that can be grown and improved. On the other hand, parents who show concern and anxiety in response to failures (e.g. their child receiving a poor test result), pass on the mindset that intelligence is a fixed characteristic, and something intrinsic to the person.

'If you believe intelligence is fixed, you're less likely to do anything to try and change it.' Image via iStock.

A new study published in Psychological Science claims that these beliefs about failure have a crucial impact on children's achievement and motivation.

In the study, researchers asked 73 sets of children and parents to answer a questionnaire designed to measure their mindsets. They responded to statements related to failure, such as 'Experiencing failure facilitates learning and growth', and statements related to intelligence, such as 'You can learn new things but you can't really change how intelligent you are.'

As expected, there was a relationship between parents' attitudes toward failure and the way their kids thought about intelligence. Those parents who believed failure to be negative and concerning, had children who viewed intelligence as fixed.

Of course, if you believe intelligence is fixed, you're less likely to do anything to try and change it. And if you believe you're innately unintelligent, you're even less likely to try. We already know that beliefs about intelligence have a profound impact on academic performance. If you split a group of children of equal ability into two different classes, and tell one that they're gifted and one that they're slow, they'll behave accordingly. The 'gifted' group will outperform the 'slow' group - regardless of their intelligence.

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'Beliefs about intelligence have a profound impact on academic performance.' Image via Columbia Pictures.

Professor Kyla Haimovitz from Stanford University, who is an author on the study, says "Parents are a really critical force in child development when you think about how motivation and mindsets develop."

"Parents have this powerful effect really early on and throughout childhood to send messages about what is failure, and how to respond to it."

For example, if a child comes home with a poor result for a maths test, their parents' response conveys important information about their ability to learn maths. If the parent comforts them by saying, "It's okay, you're still such a good writer," it sends the message that they don't need to try hard at things that don't come naturally. It suggests they shouldn't learn from the problems they got wrong.

Essentially, parents need to see the benefits of failure, and make these clear to their children.

You can interpret failure as an opportunity to learn, just as you can interpret anxiety as the feeling of being very, very excited. Here's a strategy. Post continues after video.

Personally, I've always been a big fan of failure. Here at Mamamia, we call it 'flearning' - the simultaneous act of failing and learning. Some of my greatest achievements have come from endeavors in which I initially failed, and there's an unparalleled sense of pride which emerges from conquering something you once found impossible. In positive psychology, the idea of failure being a major component of success isn't new. But it's only just starting to be explored in children, as a crucial part of their development.

Professor Gail Heyman from the University of California, who isn't affiliated with the study but is an expert in the area, told NPR "when children view their abilities as more malleable and something they can change over time, then they deal with obstacles in a more constructive way."

So, for parents? Talk to your kids about failure. Talk about times when you've failed, and learnt something valuable because of it. Talk about what they could learn from their failures, and the autonomy they have to face any challenge that comes their way.

And you could always entirely replace the way we refer to failure. When your child comes home with a poor test result, saying they failed, you could always respond, "No sweetie, you flearned. You flearned SO well."

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