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Character, Grit, and Why Some Kids Succeed While Others Fail

Published on: December 30, 2013

kit boyIf someone asked you whether your child possesses character, what would you say? We’re not talking about the definition of character that means some funny, wacky quality often seen in oddball, goofy or sparkly kids — as in, “She’s such a character!” That quality is great, and lots of fun.

But what I mean is the definition of character as a core descriptor of who we are: The magical combination of your child’s values, attitude and outlook. Ingredients such as optimism, empathy, perseverance, and a sense of rightness all go into the salad of character.

Most parents would say, or hope to be able to say, that their child has strong character. We feel, based on some internal sense (some of this can come from our cultural beliefs, religious beliefs, generational ideals and just a basic human sense of what is right) that a good character is a good thing to have.

But new research (and not-so-new research that is now under a new spotlight) is telling us that not only is character important, as most of us can imagine, but that it is in fact an accurate — or even better — predictor of a child’s success than cognitive skills (how well your child reads, calculates algebra, scores on a standardized test, how high his IQ is, or even how good of a school he attends).

At the center of this new buzz is a new book by journalist Paul Tough, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. The book seeks to answer a central question: Why do some children succeed while others fail? (See a video interview with Tough here).

Tough synthesizes a slew of fascinating research, talks to economists, neuroscientists, psychologists, medical doctors and teachers around the country , combines that with the stories of various students, families and educators working to understand and achieve success, and ends up with a pretty persuasive argument that some parents I know are going to regard as no less than their new parenting blueprint: A series of noncognitive skills that kids can easily learn (if we adults are aware enough to expose them to them early on) are the secrets to success. And true success can only be achieved by being exposed to, and overcoming, failure.

Did you read that, my helicopter/hovering parental friends and peers? Our kids must encounter and overcome failure if they are to develop the kind of character that leads to success and happiness.

I know. Deep breath. They have to fail??!!

Yes, they do.

Much of the research Tough presents, in a very accessible and readable way, shows that some parents of greater means will be grappling to disentangle themselves from the recent cultural shift toward over-protection in order to teach this new curriculum of character (read: we shouldn’t be doing their homework for them or interviewing for their summer jobs).

At the same time, other kids of lower socioeconomic status are missing out on the basic experiences and attention (parental attachment in infancy; simple mentorship in middle and high school) that could easily (and cheaply) increase their likelihood to graduate high school, attend college, and create stable families of their own.

None of this has to do with the cognitive skills we have traditionally believed dictate success.

It all has to do with what Tough and others tend to call noncognitive skills, or soft skills, or social skills or character. There are 20 or 30 of these skills, depending on who you ask. They include things like grit, curiosity, self-confidence, optimism, persistence, resilience, and the willingness to try new things.

One subset of these skills, which researchers have found is critically predictive of future success, Tough explains, revolves around self-control: Skills including conscientiousness, the ability to resist impulse, and the ability to delay gratification.

The buzzword you will hear for these skills is “executive functions.”

If you haven’t already, you’re going to be hearing that term a lot in the parenting paradigm.

One study looking at these skills dates back to the 1960s and is rather famous: The “marshmallow test” of psychologist Walter Mischel. (This is fun, you can try it at home). A preschool-aged child is put into a room and the test conductor places a marshmallow in front of him. The child is told that he can eat that one marshmallow right now, or he can wait for 10 minutes and then he will be given two marshmallows to eat.

Scientists followed those original test subjects decades later and found that those who had the ability to resist eating the one marshmallow, the children who could wait it out and cope with the pressure so as to receive the two marshmallows later, did better on a whole range of success measures than those who gave in and ate the one marshmallow.

Science presented by Tough also has found, through some studies done comparing mother lab rats who lick and groom their babies in a comforting way versus mother rats who don’t exhibit this early behavior, that baby rats who were soothed by their mothers during stressful situations do much better later on a whole host of measurements — from being less fearful and more confident to performing better on maze tests. All because they were licked by their mothers during the first two weeks of life.

For kids who are being raised in stressful and traumatic environments (abuse, poverty), which typically inhibit the development of the prefrontal cortex, where executive functions live, simple tools to teach their mother how to better attach to them in infancy can actually prevent a lot of those developmental impacts, Tough explains.

All of this is fascinating. It made me stop and reconsider the whole industry (baby genius videos, tutoring centers for toddlers, expensive toys that stimulate cognitive development) created to prey on our fears that our children, even in babyhood, will fall behind academically, not score well on the tests, not get into the right schools, and ultimately fail.

What are we forgetting about in our hot pursuit for the highest IQ and the best kiddie resumes?

My only complaint with all this information Tough presents is that I didn’t have it when I was pregnant and starting my parenting journey. Luckily, as this emergent school of thought gains traction, other parents and educators will.

Natalie Singer-VelushIn between school drop-offs and coffee binges, Natalie Singer-Velush is ParentMap’s Web Editor. In her former life she wrote for newspapers and once pumped milk in the bathroom of the King County Superior Courthouse while covering a murder trial. She was also once chased by rabid raccoons. Natalie lives in Seattle with her husband and two school-aged daughters, whom she is really trying very hard not to over-parent.

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