Have I Failed as a Parent?


What is Your Mindset?

Take the following test. As you read each statement carefully, decide whether you mostly agree or disagree with it.

  1. Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much. 
  2. You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are. 
  3. No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit. 
  4. You can always substantially change how intelligent you are. 
  5. You are a certain kind of person (for example: patient), and there is not much that can be done to really change that. 
  6. No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially. 
  7. You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can’t really be changed. 
  8. You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are.

Statements 1, 2, 5, and 7 are belief systems that promote comfort, inaction, and stagnation or sameness. All the other statements reflect an individual who believes in growth, effort, and change.

This little test comes from Dr. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which shares ground-breaking research on how we can learn to help ourselves and others reach their full potential. I HIGHLY recommend this book as it will rock your world…for the better.

Most people have strongly held beliefs about talent, ability, brains, and accomplishment. And most people are wrong about it. Most of what we know about self-esteem, intelligence, work ethic, motivation, success, and failure is flawed or downright false. Consider the following example.

A Rough Morning

Let’s say that you wake up one morning with a good attitude about that day. As you begin to help your children get ready for school your 14-year-old son teases his little sister until she screams. It’s hard enough to get them out the door on time without constantly nagging them so your daughters scream only adds to the stress. You try to control your frustration as you attempt to correct your son’s annoying behavior. He quips that it wasn’t his fault and doesn’t know what you are talking about. This only furthers your frustration because he never seems to take responsibility for his actions. In your mind you think:

“I can’t raise a child who always makes excuses for his behavior. I can’t let that happen.”

Before you can finish your lecture you notice the clock and realize that your 6-year-old son never got out of bed when you went in his room earlier to wake him up. You snap at him and wake him up in a grouchy mood.

Finally, everyone is out the door and at school and then you realize that you never had a family prayer and one of your children did not get her lunch. You try to stay positive and keep those happy feelings from when you first awoke only to find your 2-year-old daughter has gotten out every board game and spread the little pieces everywhere. That’s the last straw!

So you pick up your phone to look for an escape from your morning (and from your feelings of inadequacy and failure) and on Facebook that perfect mom down the street posted something about her perfect children and the blissfulness of the ease of family life. You think:

“I’m a total failure of a mother. I’m just not cut out for this! I can never be like so-and-so. The more I try, the more I am just screwing up my kids.”

Do Mistakes Mean We’ve Failed?

Your day started off with a positive view and outlook, and only a few hours later it has become derailed. But there was no death or destruction. Nothing catastrophic happened. Just a series of fairly common but unfortunate events.

Think back to the test you completed earlier. Statements 5-8 are assessing your mindset about growth. Do you believe that great parents are born? Is there some natural endowment of patience and teaching that some parents have and others simply don’t?

Experiences and feelings like those in the hypothetical morning episode are not all that uncommon. The problem is how much we believe those thoughts and feelings. Whether or not we really believe that growth comes from effort or from talent. Study after study has found that children who believe that either you are smart or you are not, spend a lot of time protecting their ego and stop trying.

He may make excuses when they don’t do well on a test. “The teacher never taught this very well.” “There were a lot of tricky, unfair questions.” Or he may give less effort in the future to avoid feeling inadequate or dumb. He may think: “Why try hard if you aren’t smart?”

If this is describing your child then you might want to refer to statements 1-4 on the test.

In situations such as these, we parents may try to solve our child’s problem by pouring on the praise to get them to try harder (and because we know how much we like other people praising us). Unfortunately this sort of approach only causes things to cycle downward (more on this in a future article). We may push them to get good grades–because, after all, good grades equals smart or intelligent. FALSE! This just sets the child up for using another faulty yardstick to measure their learning and overall worth.

To Improvement, and Beyond!

Think of Buzz Lightyear. For the majority of the first Toy Story movie Buzz is convinced he is a space ranger. He is so convinced that he either can’t or won’t see things as they really are. It’s not a bed, it is “unstable terrain.” It’s not a little light bulb that blinks, it’s his laser. It is not until much later in the movie that Buzz learns his true identity as a toy. He finds out that he is not naturally a space ranger and that his gadgets and gizmos are not what makes him special.

What you needed in that difficult morning and what your child needs in their test troubles is a frame of mind that centers around effort, learning, and growth. Both of you need to stop comparing yourself to others and relying solely on external indicators about your potential and ability. Every word and action from you as a parent sends a message to your child. Dr. Dweck gives this counsel:

Tomorrow, listen to what you say to your kids and tune in to the messages you’re sending. Are they messages that say: “You have permanent traits and I’m judging them?” Or are they messages that say: “You’re a developing person and I’m interested in your development?”

It’s easy for us to see why this is important for our own children, but what about you? Are you willing to work on changing your thought pattern next time your morning–or day–goes south? Are you willing to catch yourself in a comparison and judging yourself? Will you avoid using social media to drown your sorrows?

Please know that most of the negative thoughts and feelings you have about yourself are not reality. Don’t let a fixed mindset rob you of your true potential. The stuff of growth was never made of ease.