Over-parenting, Growth Mindset and Productive Struggle: A Confluence in Education by Dr. James Preston


As a newly minted father, my perspective on the world has changed. As an educator and type-A person most would not be surprised that upon learning that I was going to be a father, I decided to do some reading on the matter. One would think a soon-to-be father would read about the birthing process or the developmental stages of a newborn, both about which I knew very little. And, now that I am two months into official fatherhood, I am a bit regretful that I did not choose those topics. Rather, I did pick up a book titled How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haimes. At the time, I was also reading the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. I should also confess that in my previous life, I was a high school math teacher but currently classify myself as a teacher educator. I work very closely with those who are studying to be certified teachers in Pennsylvania.

Despite that relatively convoluted lead-in, I do want to share with you a thread of commonality between those books, my experiences and what I believe to be a very important aspect of education. The common thread is struggle. In the book How to Raise an Adult, Lythcott-Haimes describes how she and many others have evidence that today’s parents have raised a generation of young adults who have difficulty coping with setbacks, are generally unable to persevere through difficult times and often need step-by-step directions to accomplish the most basic of tasks. This is the result of over-parenting. Although done with the best of intentions and with profound love, many parents have attempted to keep all struggles out of the lives of their children. We have arranged and supervised play dates, spoken on our children’s behalf in almost all instances, praised them relentlessly, completed their science projects and choreographed all aspects of their lives with the hope of giving them an edge in the world. I have witnessed this firsthand as a university faculty member and quasi-administrator at the college level. The bulk of my interaction with students is in their final semester during student teaching. All too often if a student realizes a setback during this semester I will first be contacted by the student’s parent and often the conversation starts with, “I don’t want to be a helicopter parent but…” At that point I wonder how this soon-to-be educator is going handle his first interview, the first parent who questions his teaching methods or an administrator who thinks his lesson wasn’t perfect and provides constructive criticism.

In Dweck’s book Mindset, she differentiates between people who have a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. A person with a fixed mindset perceives her abilities as innate and fixed. She might believe she is naturally gifted in mathematics but not so in music or athletics and no matter how hard she works this will not change. A person with a fixed mindset avoids challenges and is satisfied with doing only those things in which she perceives herself as being naturally talented. She avoids struggle at all cost. On the other hand, a person with a growth mindset sees a challenge as an opportunity to learn and relies heavily on the phrase, “not yet!” She believes that with enough effort, perseverance and time, she can accomplish the most challenging of tasks. She understands that in order to achieve great things, she must be willing to risk failure. She is not threatened by the success of others but uses it as motivation and is genuinely happy for them when they succeed. She understands that if she has not accomplished something, she can simply add the word, “yet” to then end. For example, “I have not made the best use of technology in my teaching….yet!”

As a former teacher of mathematics and a teacher educator of future mathematics teachers, I often discussed the benefits of productive struggle within the mathematics classroom. The topic of productive struggle has often been discussed in the realm of teaching and learning mathematics but has recently found additional traction with the new research on the brain. Brain research has shown that as we struggle with a task and persevere towards an end, our brain grows. It may not grow in size but new connections are made. This growth is much easier for younger children than it is for adults but it is possible for everyone. One of the criticisms of the teachers in American classrooms is that we tend to intervene at the first sign of struggle. We believe that if a student struggles in our classroom then we have not done our job or that we have failed as a teacher. We try to eliminate the struggle.

When in fact, if we truly want our students to grow, we should create a classroom where struggle is the norm. Now this can be a very tricky endeavor as there are many ways for this to go poorly and it requires a lot of work for it to go well. For example, in the mathematics classroom we want students to struggle with the content they are to learn rather than some peripheral task. A common question about teaching mathematics is “when should we permit students to use a calculator?” My answer is that it is appropriate anytime the goal of the lesson is something other than computation. If a teacher is trying to get students to make sense of the concept of “arithmetic mean”, then it might be a good time to use a calculator so that the student doesn’t get bogged down with the computation but can struggle with the concept of “mean”. What does “mean” mean? When is it appropriate to use the “mean” rather than the “median”? Naturally, as in every lesson, the teacher needs to make sure that the task is within the students’ reach and then provide the appropriate level of support as they struggle. Again, it can be tricky.

As I read the books How to Raise an Adult and Mindset and thought about my own experiences as a mathematics teacher and teacher educator, I came to the conclusion that educators need to take a hard look at where struggle has occurred—or not occurred—in our students’ lives and where we can appropriately insert it. We need to get our students to develop the growth mindset that Dr. Dweck identified in her book and we need to educate parents about the importance of struggle. We need to value the struggles we face in our own lives and model the growth mindset for our students. There is a lot of literature about this topic and I believe it is worth the struggle to plow through some of it.

Dr. James Preston is Assistant to the Dean at Slippery Rock University

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