TL;DR – Let’s nurture a growth mindset in our children
A young boy, full of promise, gone too soon. A young life snuffed out far too early. That in itself is a great tragedy. What makes it even more tragic is if this boy took his life. That’s what happened earlier this year. In May, a 11 year-old boy committed suicide by jumping from his bedroom window at the 17th storey. The reason? It is believed that it’s because for the first time in his young life, he failed his exams.
On October 21, State Coroner Marvin Bay concluded that the boy did not fall from the window accidentally. Instead, it was an act of suicide. Mr Bay added that the boy seemed to have buckled under the pressure from his parents.
The boy’s mother admitted that she would cane the boy on his palm whenever he scored less than 70 marks in exams. He would cry when she hit him, but would not remain unhappy for long. It seemed that while this put the boy under pressure, he was still able to cope. That is until the mid-year exams in his Primary 5.
At Primary 5, students would have to adjust to a different format of exams. Perhaps it was this change in format that led to the boy performing worse than expected. A lot worse. He failed two subjects and barely passed the other three. He knew about his poor performance in his exams as early as 14 May. But instead of informing his parents of his results, he told them that his results were average.
Unfortunately, the boy could not maintain the lie forever. The State Coroner revealed, after hearing evidence, that the boy appeared to face “mounting anxiety” as the day he had to show his parents his exam results approached. And when the boy realised that he couldn’t maintain the lie any more, he locked himself in his room, and jumped to his death.
That the mother loved the boy is beyond doubt. She wanted the boy to do well in school so that he can secure a good future for himself. Unfortunately, the way she demonstrated her love indirectly contributed to the death of her son. This entire tragedy is an important wake-up call for all of us.
The boy’s unfortunate fixed mindset
The mother wanted to motivate her son to do better. But the way she did it instilled in the boy a fear of failure. It bred what developmental psychologist, Prof Carol Dweck, called the fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is one where you believe that your qualities are “carved in stone”. It also assumes that success is an affirmation of how those fixed qualities are measured against an equally fixed standard.
According to research by Prof Dweck, the fixed mindset results in:
“an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics…
I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”
With a fixed mindset, striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. That sure sounds like what the boy was thinking just before his untimely death. He didn’t want his parents to see him as a failure. It seemed that he wanted to avoid being perceived as a failure at all cost.
By rewarding and punishing the boy for his results, rather than his effort, the mother bred in the boy a fixed mindset. When he met with the obstacle of an unfamiliar exam format, he probably lost confidence. That would have sealed his fate. There would have been no way for him to pass, let alone do well.
If the boy had a growth mindset instead…
The opposite of the fixed mindset is the growth mindset. Prof Dweck describes the growth mindset as such:
“In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”
A person with a growth mindset develops a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. A person with a growth mindset thrives on challenges and sees failures not as a sign of inability but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching his abilities. In other words, a person with a growth mindset is more emotionally resilient.
How to foster a growth mindset and emotional resilience
Many parents in Singapore are like the mother of the boy who committed suicide. My parents were. I do not fault them. That was the way they and most of the older generation parents showed their love. They did not know any better. But we can do better. We need to do better.
We need to emphasise more on effort and less on results. That is not to say that we become indulgent of the child and simply accept any result the child produces. Rather, it is about affirming the effort put in by the child and then challenging the child to work harder and smarter to do better. Of course, we don’t just leave the child to work on the challenge alone. Instead, we assure the child that we are there to help, should he need it.
This infographic by MOE is a great guide on how we can help develop emotional resilience in our children:
Let’s start changing mindset today
According to this news report, although the total reported suicide rate for last year was at its lowest since 2012, it is alarming that suicide rates are increasing for those aged 10 to 19.
In fact, according to figures from the Samaritans of Singapore, Singapore saw the highest suicide rate for that age group in 15 years.
The death of this boy is a great tragedy. A greater tragedy would be if we don’t learn from it. The two mindsets can shape all of our lives significantly. In fact, not just for the kids, adopting a growth mindset is great for even us, and also in the way we work with others, especially if we manage people.
Incidentally, here’s a very timely article that demonstrates how people like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has a growth mindset and how it makes him challenge himself to learn Chinese, to run the marathon and more. The growth mindset also impacts the way he manages people.
Let’s hope that we, as a nation, will start moving away from a fixed mindset, and start developing a growth mindset. And until we, the adults, start the mindset change, the kids will not get it.