A new study suggests parents' responses to failure, not their beliefs about intelligence, are absorbed by their kids.

“Mindsets - children's belief about whether their intelligence is just fixed or can grow--can have a large impact on their achievement and motivation,” explains psychological scientist Kyla Haimovitz of Stanford University, first author on the study.

“Our findings show that parents can endorse a growth mindset but they might not pass it on to their children unless they have a positive and constructive reaction to their children's struggles.”

The researchers hypothesised that parents’ views on intelligence might not transfer to their kids, because the adult mindsets are not readily observable.

What kids might see and be sensitive to, the researchers speculated, is their how parents feel about failure.

In one part of the new study, the researchers asked 73 parent-child pairs to answer a series of questions designed to tap into their individual mindsets.

The parents rated their agreement with six statements related to failure (e.g., ‘Experiencing failure facilitates learning and growth’) and four statements related to intelligence (e.g., ‘You can learn new things but you can't really change how intelligent you are’). The children, all aged from 9 to 11 years old, responded to similar statements about intelligence.

The results showed no association between parents’ beliefs about intelligence and their children’s beliefs about intelligence.

The researchers surmised that parents who typically show anxiety and concern when their kids come home with a poor quiz grade may convey the belief that intelligence is fixed.

Parents who focus instead on learning from the poor grade signal to their kids that intelligence can be built through learning and improvement.

Parents' attitudes toward failure were linked with how their kids thought about intelligence, so parents who tended to view failure as a negative, harmful event had children who were more likely to believe that intelligence is fixed.

The more negative parents’ attitudes were, the more likely their children were to see them as being concerned with performance as opposed to learning.

Two online studies with a total of almost 300 participants showed that parents who adopted a more negative stance toward failure were more likely to react to their child's hypothetical failing grade with concerns about their child's lack of ability.

Importantly, additional data indicated that children were very much attuned to their parents’ feelings about failure.

“It is important for parents, educators, and coaches to know that the growth mindset that sits in their heads may not get through to children unless they use learning-focused practices, like discussing what their children could learn from a failure and how they might improve in the future,” says Haimovitz.

An abstract of the study is available here.