Growth vs Fixed Mindset in Practice


I have no idea how far an average 9 year old can (and should) run.  Until today I might have taken the token elementary school “one-mile run” benchmark, grossed it up for good measure and said 2 MILES.  In fact I invoked that line of thinking when my 9 year old insisted he wanted to join me on my run today.  Thankfully my day’s training schedule called for a short 4 mile run so having him run HALF of that with me seemed like a worthy goal.

Training to run a marathon in a 45 year old body not wired for sustained efforts of self-discipline has a way of loudly intruding on family life.  On days when I have a double digit mileage target I’m both out of the house for hours and then talking about my recovery, requesting foam roller massages and affirmation for the remainder of it.  It’s hard for my boys to miss this Marathon business is kind of a big deal for their Mom.   They’ve been really sweet about it. 

So there we were today – earbuds in– embarking on our inaugural mother/son 2 MILE run.   Heightening this already big milestone was the fact we were doing it in the picturesque if not relentlessly hilly French countryside and aided by an unusually cool morning after a night of rain.  We started out on a confidence building downhill.  By 0.4 miles there was talk of it “being easy.”  By 0.8 miles there was the question of how far his 13 year older brother had just run on his own.  (Answer: 3.8 miles at a much faster pace than his Mom.)  By 0.95 miles, as I expected there might be, there was the bold declaration that he was not yet ready to turn back.   He wanted to go the full 4 miles with me.  When I suggested maybe 2.5 or 3 miles he would have none of it.

Given the course up to that point had largely been downhill, 4 miles seemed like an overly ambitious goal for someone, a wee-little loved one especially, who had self-reportedly never run more than 8 laps around a school track.   I also wanted our maiden marathon training to be a win/win.  I wanted him to feel successful and to enjoy running and I wanted to get my 4 miles in.  But instead of giving in to that well-meaning impulse I flashed to Carol Dweck, the Standford psychologist, talking about fixed versus growth mindset and how maybe I needed to use this experience not to help my child succeed but rather to give him the chance to grow.  I said, “Ok.  Let’s Do It.”

By 1.8 miles the “easy” talk had subsided and that’s when it got interesting.  Over the next 2.2 miles I taught him all the strategies I’ve learned.  On the steep uphills I told him about leaning forward into the hill and not letting it work against you.  When he got a cramp in his side, I suggested he have a word with the cramp and tell it to please leave him alone.   I taught him how to relax his arms.  I taught him how to slow his pace so he could go longer.  I taught him it’s okay to stop and stretch for a minute. And when he was really gassed I reminded him to focus on one foot at a time … to which he said, “Like that show Unbreakable where Kimmy says you can do anything for at least 10 seconds.”   Exactly!

And so when at 3.5 miles with a final uphill to finish my red-faced, exhausted 9 year old boy asked me in hopes of a reprieve: “Mom, are you tired?” I answered honestly, “No, because I’ve trained my body to do this … and you can do this … it’s only as far as 2 more laps around the track.”  To finish would mean he would do 8 more laps – or exactly double – his personal best.  He asked at every remaining driveway if it was “our” house but didn’t stop until I confirmed it was and my watch confirmed it was 4.0 miles.

I still don’t know how far an average 9 year old can (and should) run.  What I do know is that today mine ran further than he (and I) knew he could.  Not only that but he’s asked to go with me again tomorrow. 

We can be content to remain as we are, we can push to reasonably sanctioned limits or we can be willing to get red-faced to go farther than those around us believe is possible.   Children routinely do this better than we can so let’s give them the berth to try, pick them up when they fail and encourage them to do it again.  They have something to teach us in what it means to truly be unbreakable.  10 seconds at a time.