The Peanut-Butter Mindset

by Jeff Camp | January 29, 2016 | 0 Comments
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Learning Can Be an Acquired Taste

A few years ago, I admitted something to my kids that I had concealed for a long time:

I don’t like peanut butter… yet.

Their jaws dropped. I mean, everybody likes peanut butter, right? It’s creamy, and fragrant, and nutritious. It’s affordable. It’s convenient. It has a proud history in America from archaeology to George Washington Carver to Jimmy Carter.

Naturally, my kids had urgent questions. “Dad! Why don’t you like peanut butter?” “What don’t you like about it?” “Are you allergic?” And this one:

“How come you never told us?”

Peanut butter is a pretty important subject for elementary school kids. Peanut allergies affect perhaps one in every sixty children. Kids are notoriously untidy eaters. Some schools exile peanut butter lunches to special tables with good ventilation. Others ban peanut butter altogether. This isn’t an irrational choice. If a child is strongly allergic, the consequences can be life-threatening. The first aid procedure to arrest a serious reaction involves gripping a big spring-loaded hypodermic device in your fist, jabbing it firmly into a child’s leg and holding it there for ten seconds. Better than dying, but still kind of the definition of a bad day for everyone involved.

Better than dying, but still kind of the definition of a bad day

For kids who aren’t allergic, therefore, peanut butter can be a kind of forbidden pleasure.

No, I told my kids. I’m not allergic to peanut butter. It’s just on a short list of foods that I still find a little challenging. I kept it to myself because, well, my culinary limitations don’t have to be your limitations. Anyway, I’ve learned to enjoy many foods that I didn’t like at first.

“Like what?” They wanted to know. I asked if they had some guesses, and they had no shortage. Mushrooms? Fish? Licorice? Spicy food?

Yes, I told them. All of those were challenging for me at one point, but you never know when you’ll start liking something, so it’s important to keep trying. I don't want to define myself by what I can’t enjoy.

A Peanut-Butter Mindset

In school, kids are asked to learn things that challenge them. Not every flavor of learning is automatically tasty to every student. Some kids are challenged by math. Some struggle to read, or write, or to memorize facts, or to speak up, or to work with other kids. School asks kids to try everything, again and again, so they have multiple chances to develop a taste for it.

Stanford professor Carol Dweck famously describes openness to learning as a “growth mindset,” but I like to think of it as a peanut butter mindset. I can learn to like things. Conversely, if you believe you can’t like something, you probably won’t. (Professor Dweck calls this a "fixed mindset") Sometimes learning is an acquired taste. If schools do a good job, the experience delivers a “taste” for learning, even if it takes a few tries.

“Wait a second,” said my son, eyes narrow. “You say you don’t like peanut butter. But you eat Reese’s! I’ve seen you!”

I smiled. See? There’s hope for me yet!

Join the Discussion

  • If a school wants to intentionally promote a growth mindset, what can it do? What actions make a difference?
  • How is a growth mindset different from just telling yourself "I think I can?"
  • Does your school's culture promote a growth mindset? How?
  • How is a growth mindset different from keeping an open mind?

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