What exactly is mastery, and why is this concept important for the Modern Kid’s successful future academic life, career, and overall emotional health?

Psychological researchers define mastery as the drive to achieve and improve upon one’s skills until a standard of excellence is achieved through repetition and practice, despite the absence of physical rewards. Essentially, mastery should be the reward itself.

When most of us think of mastery, remarkable people such as Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Tiger Woods come to mind. They’ve obviously mastered their areas of science, business, and sports, right?

But even the most average person needs to experience mastery in their everyday lives if they are to experience happiness in learning, work, and life. Unfortunately, well-meaning parents of decades past have forgotten about allowing kids to experience mastery, and, instead, skipped directly to the step of forcing the (often unearned) feeling of achievement on our kids through participation trophies and no-score baseball games.

I’m not harshly judging these parents of the prior generation – it seems we needed to try out that concept to see that it didn’t work – but now that Modern Parents know that artificially-created achievement DECREASES self-esteem instead of INCREASING it, we need to iterate and improve on what we have learned.

This iteration is a focus on encouraging our kids to develop mastery.

What Mastery Is – And What It Isn’t

Now, I’m not telling you that the Modern Parent should set out to create uber-performing robot children. Encouraging a sense of mastery in kids is a parenting technique that encourages kids to  pursue interesting passions and talents in a way that that allows them to practice self-motivation, perseverance, and self-discipline.

Mastery ISN’T:

  • A focus on perfectionism
  • An expectation that kids need to be perfect
  • An expectation that the child needs to be the best at every activity
  • An expectation that the child will become an expert at something overnight.

Instead, mastery IS:

  • A process of lifelong discovery and practice
  • A way to challenge oneself to get incrementally better at a task over time
  • The process of learning how to persevere even when a task gets hard
  • The acceptance that mastery isn’t an end goal, but a process
  • It’s a way of thinking and approaching goals rather than achieving the goal itself
  • Acknowledgement that each step must be mastered before moving on to the next step – each achievement and experience adds to the continuing journey.

As you can see, a Modern Parent who encourages mastery mindset in their child understands that this is an important life skill that is developed over many years. Mastery is about the PROCESS of undertaking a task, not the outcome of the task. This is because when the focus is on mastering a task, a positive outcome is naturally achieved.

The Benefits of Practicing a Mastery Mindset

Science has shown that when kids experience a sense of mastery over life tasks (knowing how to get ready for school in the morning, doing household chores correctly, understanding the steps needed to complete a school project, etc.) and personal interests and passions (hobbies, sports, extracurricular activities) they also experience an INCREASE in:

  • Self-motivation: Kids learn to enjoy the feeling of mastery and this feeling gives them the internal motivation to keep going on tasks
  • Self-esteem: Even the tiniest successes enable the child to feel competent, which allows them to feel a sense of pride in themselves
  • Self-reliance: Kids learn that they not only can perform certain tasks, but that they can problem-solve on their own when difficulties arise
  • Social skills: Kids who feel competent are less anxious to meet new peers and to continue to maintain these friendships if disagreements occur

As a child psychologist, I have also witnessed first-hand the DECREASE in negative psychological symptoms when kids learn to practice a mastery mindset:

  • Anxiety: As a child’s confidence in their own competence increases, there is a decrease in their self-reported anxious symptoms
  • Depression: When kids find areas where they can practice personal strengths or interests, they isolate less, participate in activities more, and envision a positive future, which contributes to a decreases in their self-reported depression

A mastery mindset can mean way more than just raising kids who become successful adults – it can have cursory positive effects in many others areas of their life as well! Motivation researcher Edward Deci found in his work with mastery that when kids experienced a positive effect in one area of their life, then other areas also saw a positive effect.

So now that you might be convinced you need to practice a mastery mindset as a Modern Parent, how do you go about beginning this mindshift? The rest of this article will now discuss the nuts and bolts of mastery – the fundamentals of mastery, the important elements that must be present, and expert tips to become a pro at encouraging mastery in your child.

The Fundamentals of Mastery

Here is the roadmap to effectively implementing a mastery mindset in your household:

Start Small >> Work Your Way Up >> Provide Meaningful, Positive Feedback

Start Small. Psychologists investigating the science of expertise and motivation, such as Anders Ericcson and Edward Deci, have found through their experiments that in order for kids to develop a sense of mastery in a task, they must start small.

For example, just look at how toddlers master the task of learning to walk. There is a definite path to mastery of walking. First, the child must get on all fours, then “creep”, crawl, “cruise” the furniture, and then finally walk unaided. Even though your cousin might tell you that their child “walked over night,” research has shown that all toddlers go through each stage in order – even if one or two stages were very brief.

Therefore, in order for your child to fully grasp a task in its entirety, they MUST start at the beginning and progress through each step. This is true for life skills such as learning to properly clean to the bathroom to academic skills such as learning how to study for a test to extra curricular activities such as mastering the game of tennis.

It’s also important to acknowledge that all kids progress at different speeds; as such, you must be patient as your child works though each step – the steps cannot be rushed!

Work Your Way Up. Once your child has mastered a step on their path to mastering a task, they are ready to move up to the next step.

For academic tasks, this progression schedule is created for the child in the form of the lesson plan. Teachers must design a lesson plan that fits the “average student,” and while this meets the need of many students, it doesn’t always accommodate the slow learner. If this is the case with your child, then hiring a tutor to help your child progress to the next step on the school’s timeline might be needed.

Progressing to the next step in extracurricular tasks often times means the presence of a coach, mentor, or teacher. Talented sports coaches, music teachers, etc. are able to work with each individual child to help them master a step and then to challenge them once that current step is mastered. Working with this kind of mentor during childhood is a great opportunity for your child to learn how to work with someone more knowledgeable in order to gain mastery in a task. It is a good life skill to learn.

Self-monitoring mastery with casual hobbies and interests is also a good life skill for your child to learn and one in which you can become an unofficial mentor. For example, if your child has a natural interest in art, then purchasing art supplies and providing an area in the home for the child to draw or paint encourages the child to spend time on this interest. If you see your child struggling to progress to the next stage in their artwork, then you can casually suggest an art class, book, or youtube video to help your child learn the new art technique.

Provide Meaningful, Positive Feedback. I really hate to criticize previous generations of parents, but the “trophy for all” generation of parents certainly showed us that not all positive feedback is helpful for the child. Recent studies on positive rewards for kids has overwhelmingly shown that when we provide feedback to our kids, it needs to be positive, specific, and instructive. It needs to be meaningful to the child.

So what is meaningful feedback?

Psychologist Anders Ericsson, who wrote the book Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise, has found through his decades of research that a simple “Good job!” isn’t enough to inspire people to continue pursuing a task; this feedback needs to connect the learner to the pursuit of figuring out how to get to the next step in the task.

Researcher James Pennebaker from the University of Texas at Austin has spent years working with kids in the classroom, and he has uncovered 5 aspects of feedback that must be present in order for the feedback to be meaningful to the child:

  • Be as specific as possible. Saying “good job” as opposed to “I really liked the combination of colors you used” regarding your child’s newest painting communicates two entirely different messages. The former seems to say “I’ll like anything you make – you don’t even need to try hard” while the latter gives your child useful information about how to proceed on their next art project. I’ve written before about being specific with feedback. You can read that post HERE.

 

  • The sooner the better. Numerous studies indicate that feedback is most effective when it is given immediately, rather than a few days, weeks, or months down the line. If the goal of our feedback is to help the child connect what we’ve said to figuring out how to progress to the next step in the task, then the sooner they receive feedback from us, the more likely they will be able to use that information to progress to the next step.
  • Address the child’s advancement toward a goal. “That’s nice” is less effective than “You played that piece with only two mistakes this time – you’ll be playing it without any mistakes before the recital this weekend.” In our example, the goal was to perform the piano piece without any mistakes for the recital. By specifically noting how your child improved on making fewer mistakes, the child becomes focused on the overall goal – which is playing the piece for the recital without any mistakes.
  • Present feedback carefully. The way feedback is presented can have an impact on how it is received, which means that sometimes even the most well-meaning feedback can come across the wrong way and reduce a learner’s motivation. I’ve written several articles discussing the science behind effective positive reinforcement and I give tips to parents on how to do this correctly. To get a more depth understanding of this, you can read those articles HERE and HERE.
  • Involve the child in the process. It’s imperative that kids have autonomy when they are involved in tasks that involved mastery. Researcher James Pennebaker says that kids, “must be given access to information about their performance…. At the broadest level, [they] need to know if they actually have mastered the material or not. Giving them information about the ways they are studying, reading, searching for information, or answering questions can be invaluable.” Don’t be afraid of giving your child some constructive feedback – it’s good for them AND they want this information.

 

If you include all of the fundamentals of mastery – start small, work your way up, and meaningful feedback – then you are setting your child up for a positive mastery experience.

Important Elements of The Mastery Journey

Now that you know the fundamentals of providing a positive mastery experience for your child, you should be aware of some of the important elements of this lifelog journey. My goal here is to make you aware of these elements, so you know that they are normal and that your child can overcome them when they come up.

The mastery journey is characterized by lots and lots of practice, which means that the following elements will more than likely come up for your child:

Takes lots of time. Mastery takes time – lots of it. Malcolm Gladwell, in his super informative book, Outliers, states that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery. He sites multiple examples of real-life experts who started working on their 10,000 hours of practice before becoming famous.

For example, Gladwell tells the story of how Bill Gates started on his 10,000 hours of becoming a computer industry expert in 1968, when, as a young child, his mother raised money for a little-known hobby for his elementary school: computer science. When he outgrew his elementary school lab, he figured out how to use the University of Washington’s computer lab. Bill Gates was well into his 10,000 hours of computer experience by the time he was 20 years old – when many people are just beginning their computer programming experience!

(Note: there have been several current scientific studies that have disputed this 10,000 hour rule, so while the 10,000 number cannot be taken literally, it definitely provides a figurative example that mastery involves lots and lots of practice.)

Modern Parents need to have an attitude that mastery is a lifelong experience. This communicates to the child that they begin their journey of mastery with their parents’ help, but it is a lifelong journey that they will need to continue as adults.

Boring. Practicing the same thing over and over will be boring. Getting in that 10,000 hours of practice isn’t always fun.

Just because your child gets bored practicing the same dance routine over and over or doing the same soccer drill for weeks on end doesn’t mean that something is wrong. Part of our jobs as parents is to help our kids find strategies to overcome this boredom and continue with the activity.

Consistent and repetitive. It’s a plain and simple fact that in order to master any activity, there has to be hours and hours of practice involved. Even world-renowned experts didn’t wake up extremely talented. Their “secret” is that they put in a lot of practice BEFORE they became famous.

For example, Tiger Woods, one of the best golf players of all time, is pretty vocal that he got where he is by many hours of practice.  He stated, “People don’t understand that when I grew up, I was never the most talented. I was never the biggest. I was never the fastest. I certainly was never the strongest. The only thing I had was my work ethic, and that’s been what has gotten me this far.”

Research tells us that mastery involves repetitive practice so that our brains encode what needs to be done in our long term memory banks. We develop mastery when we get to the point where we perform an activity almost without thinking about it. Recent advances in neuroscience has shown that our brains actually change – nerve connections get stronger, nerves become more encoded with insulation, etc. – when we perform an activity over and over again consistently. These changes in our brains enable us to perform the chosen task more efficiently.

Purposeful practice is more effective than mindless practice. Finally, recent research is showing us that any kind of practice helps, but focused, purposeful practice provides the most bang for our buck.

What is purposeful practice? Expertise researcher Anders Ericsson developed the concept of purposeful practice in the late 1990’s after investigating the elements of successful people. He found that very successful people practiced with an intentional focus on results versus mindless, naive practice.

In his book, Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson found the following particular characteristics of purposeful practice:

    • Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals. He stated that, “purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal.” Without an overall goal (i.e. a small goal from the current step of a task), practice just isn’t as effective.

 

  • Purposeful practice is focused. Practicing soccer drills while gossiping with friends will not provide the same results as practicing the drills with full attention. If we want to our kids to get the most out of practice, then we need to provide an environment that is free from distraction for them.
  • Purposeful practice involves feedback. Since we discussed feedback in the above section, I won’t go into it much here but to point out that your child CAN take constructive feedback. I encourage you to read THIS ARTICLE about how to provide effective positive feedback.
  • Purposeful practice involves getting out of one’s comfort zone. Mastery is a journey of lifelong progression. Practice should always be just a little bit hard and challenging. Edward Deci’s experiments on motivation has shown that people remain motivated when the task they are practicing is just a little above their current level of functioning. On the other hand, too much of a challenge can actually have the opposite effect, so if it seems like your child is struggling too much, consider making the task less challenging for them.

 

Knowing these important elements of mastery – that it takes lots of time, it can be boring, it’s consistent and repetitive, and it involves purposeful practice – allows Modern Parents to make the mastery journey a positive one for their child.

Take Home Message

It’s important to note that there WILL come a time when your child will want to give up on a task when it becomes difficult. Most people quit at this stage and blame the difficulty on things that they think they can’t change – like genes or talent. Truly remarkable people figure out how to get over this obstacle and continue to succeed. Our jobs as Modern Parents is to work with our kids to develop strategies to overcome these difficult times and progress to that next level of the task.

As Albert Einstein once about perseverance: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

 

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