How to Help Your Kid Win Educational Games

Educational games can frustrate your kid. Real education is rude that way. They make your kid try something new and difficult, and if they fail, they don’t get to see the glowing grape or catch the bouncing bauble or whatever.

This upsets your kid, who then screams for help. You want to help because you’re an engaged parent (and you want the screaming to stop). But if you just count the giant’s toenails yourself, your kid might get praise from a soulless digital Elmo, but they won’t learn much.

So how do we play along without defeating the whole purpose of educational games? Easy: move them away from a fixed mindset toward a growth mindset.

Okay it's not easy. Let's start with two definitions.

Growth

The growth mindset asserts that failure is an opportunity to learn, develop, and overcome. What you can’t do now you can learn to do with enough thought and effort. If at first you don’t succeed, think and try again.

Fixed

The fixed mindset assumes your skills and characteristics are set. Failure is a hint, and you should take it and go find something you’re innately good at. If at first you don’t succeed, quit and marry rich.

Guess Which One Is Better

The fixed mindset leads to a constant need to prove yourself. If your qualities are set in stone, then a failure is a lasting judgment against you. This discourages taking risks and experimentation.

The growth mindset takes challenges and failures as opportunities. It recognizes the headache of hard math as growing pains in the brain.

Tried-Hard Trophies

It all sounds great and is backed up by twenty years of research by the remarkable Stanford professor Carol Dweck, who developed the mindset idea. But just last year Dr. Dweck revisited this topic. She’d seen some troubling ways her theories were being put to counterproductive use.

She finds that some educators and parents use the growth mindset language just to relieve the pain of failure. They praise the kid’s effort. They tell them trying their best is all that matters. This makes kids feel good in the short term, but they’re likely to repeat the same failures, maybe even shrugging them off, satisfied that at least they tried real hard.

The growth mindset applied correctly praises effort but also spurs the kid on to adapt and learn. Of course learning takes effort, but it also takes rethinking your approach, discussing and trying new strategies to solve a given problem.

So when your kid is stumped by a game, once you’ve congratulated them for their efforts, talk with them about the things they’ve tried so far. Discuss the details of the problem and what approaches they might try next.

If It’s Fixed, Fix It

Dr. Dweck also notes that the fixed mindset is being used as an excuse for when a kid’s not learning. If little Jerry’s got a fixed mindset, there’s nothing left but to start developing his janitorial skills.

But Dr. Dweck makes it clear that we all operate with some blend of the fixed and the growth mindset. Better yet, you can change where your kid is on that spectrum with time and attention.

When your kid acts defeated or looks for an excuse or becomes defensive or angry, don’t shame those fixed-mindset feelings. Identify them, talk about them, and work together back toward a growth mindset before diving back in to help that dragon sew his sails together. (Kids games are weird and always have been. Anybody remember Treasure Mountain?)

The Goal

We’ve all had the experience of overcoming an obstacle through personal growth. Even the tiniest examples of it are incredibly satisfying. That’s what an educational game does when it’s working, and that’s where we find our goal for when we help out.

It’s not just about teaching math or the alphabet. It’s not about appeasing Dora the demigod with her bizarre demands. It’s not even about winning. It’s about teaching our tikes to love learning.

Note: Click here to get more tips and info from the great Dr. Dweck.