Parenting, Education and Children: Fostering Openness to Learning in Children


What makes one child excited and another fearful about trying new experiences?

What makes one child put forth extensive effort toward something and another give up easily in discouragement?

What makes one child intensely curious and another closed down to new learning?

It is their set of beliefs – their way of thinking – that determines their behavior and outlook. Their beliefs determine their frame of mind, their approach to life, their attitude about themselves and their abilities.


What kind of beliefs foster openness to learning and what kind of beliefs create a sense of fear and limitation?

Surprisingly, beliefs such as “I am smart” or “I am talented” or “I am gifted” tend to create limitation rather than openness. When children are told, “You are so smart” or “You are so talented,” they have a tendency to get attached to the approval of being smart or talented and may become fearful of failure. They may decide that if they put forth great effort toward learning something and they fail, that this will prove that they are not as smart or as talented as their parents or teachers believe them to be. They may learn to attach their worth to being smart or talented and may see themselves as a failure if they fail at something.

On the other hand, children who are praised for EFFORT rather than ABILITY (see “Mindset” by Dr. Carol Dweck), learn to value themselves for their openness to learning and their efforts toward their goal, rather than for achieving the goal itself. These children get excited by the process of learning itself and experience a sense of worth in the effort, growth, and learning, rather than their sense of worth being attached to the outcome.


Children who enjoy a challenge receive a sense of self-validation from the effort itself, while children who are attached to outcomes receive a sense of worth mainly through the approval of others.

There is a huge difference between children who believe that “The harder I work, the smarter I get” or “The more I practice, the better I get,” and children who believe, “I am smart so I don’t have to work hard,” or “I am talented and I can just fall back on my talent.” Research indicates that raw intelligence or talent is not enough.

“It’s always been accepted that by hard work, training, and exercise it’s possible to develop intellectual faculties or an intellectual mastery well above the average…We know very well that there are people who are exceptionally gifted intellectually. We also know very well that those exceptional gifts will yield nothing unless cultivated by intensive training and daily practice. “

–The Monk and the Philosopher, by Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard p. 45

Likewise, we need to make sure that we do not limit our children by telling them they are stupid or untalented. A child who believes that “I’m stupid so why bother putting in any effort,” or “I’m not musical so why bother practicing the piano,” will never make the effort needed to grow.


As parents, grandparents, and teachers, we can foster openness to learning in children by focusing on their effort rather than on their abilities or their achievements. A statement such as “Wow, I can really see how hard you’ve worked on this!” can motivate a child far more than “Wow, you are so smart!” or “Wow, you are so talented!”

It is wonderful to see children curious, open and excited by learning. It is wonderful to experience children who are self-motivated and receive joy and a sense of intrinsic worth through their own efforts. Let’s foster this in our children by teaching them that their intelligence and abilities are not fixed at birth – that their intelligence and abilities grow with effort and practice.

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