“We think that even if your children have the academic skills they need – and we’re doing our best to make sure they do – if our young adults grow up and they don’t also have strong character skills, then they don’t have very much. Because we know that character is what keeps people happy and successful and fulfilled.”
-Tom Brunzell, Dean of Students at KIPP Infinity (quoted in Tough’s book)
I read Paul Tough’s latest book (How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character) with great interest as both a parent and as a youth development professional. Tough, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, shares a compelling series of narratives about research studies, a chess team, and various schools and programs that have figured out, through trial and error, how to help youth succeed. While he focuses primarily on children coming from poverty, he also discusses the issue of character development in affluent kids. Throughout his book, Tough threads together an indisputable fact: our children’s character matters – a lot.
As Tough states early in the book, “What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.”
Our challenge as parents, teachers, and others who work with youth, is providing our children with opportunities to develop the character traits that will help them find success later in life.
I highly recommend this book to parents, educators, and others who work with children and young adults. Tough’s message about the importance of helping our youth develop character needs to permeate and change how we raise this generation of kids. And his description of the programs and techniques that are working serves as a guide to those of us who want to help kids develop character strengths.
Character Traits Which Predict Success
“But over the past few years, it has become clear that the United States does not so much have a problem of limited and unequal college access; it has a problem of limited and unequal college completion…. [students] need qualities of motivation and perseverance – as well as the presence of good study habits and time management skills –“
-Paul Tough, How Children Succeed
According to Tough (and the many research studies he cites), certain character traits are much better predictors of success than a child’s IQ or test scores. Among these traits, an important one is the ability to delay gratification. As we have seen in our debt-ridden culture, many adults who do not have this skill create for themselves some major life problems and disappointments — the antithesis of success.
So how do we help kids learn to be better at delaying gratification? There’s only one way. They cannot get everything they want right when they want it. They need to not get some things, face that disappointment, and have to work for a long time to earn what they want. According to Tough, affluent parents are often guilty of “overindulging kids, with the intention of giving them everything and being loving, but at the expense of their character…” Learning to work for something they’d like to purchase, or waiting until they achieve a particular milestone, is helpful in building up our kids’ “delayed gratification” skills. Even if we can afford the latest technological gadget our child desires, it does them a disservice if we always run out and purchase it for them.
Tough acknowledges how hard it is for parents to not give in to our children’s desires, “…in fact, we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we know – on some level, at least – that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.”
An episode on Modern Family last season featured the dilemma of Haley not having any hardship to write about on her college application. Her mom created one by dropping her off miles from home and making her walk home. It was a humorous example of a real problem — Colleges want to see that our kids have some “grit,” because they will need it to complete college. But for many kids, their lives have not been conducive to developing that particular trait. Life is often too easy for kids on the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
As a camp director I talk to a lot of parents, most of whom are very supportive and sane (since they’re willing to let their kids go to camp in the first place!). I remember one mom, though, who couldn’t stand her daughter experiencing any discomfort at all. She was extremely upset that the “bear bag” (food bag kept up in a tree so as to avoid having animals come into camp) got stuck up in the tree on her daughter’s backpacking trip. The kids didn’t have any food for breakfast and had to wait until 9:00 am to eat. She was horrified and distressed and could not understand how we could have allowed her daughter to face what seemed to her to be a terrible hardship. I wonder how this parent might now be reacting to more serious hurdles her teenage daughter could be facing? What impact does over-reaction have on the development of character? I think that our well-meaning care, and sometimes over-reaction to negative events in our kids’ lives, doesn’t help them develop grit and other character traits we really want them to have.
Tough tells us about how, in recent decades, character traits have been studied and catalogued. In their book, Character Strengths & Virtues: A Handbook for Classification, Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson include a list of 24 specific character strengths, including traits like fairness, integrity, humor, social intelligence, kindness, and gratitude. On a list narrowed down by Peterson to be less unwieldy, we learn of seven strengths that are especially likely to predict satisfaction and high achievement. Cultivating these character traits “represent[s] a reliable path to ‘the good life,’ a life that [is] not just happy but meaningful and fulfilling.”
In KIPP academies across America (charter schools with high academic standards geared towards low income kids), students are graded on these seven character traits. A student-teacher conference could include a discussion of how to beef up self-discipline or optimism skills. I was intrigued at the thought of making good character as much of a discussion with our kids as their grades and test scores. I think as parents we need to be more intentional about teaching our kids about character and helping them see both their strengths and the areas they need to work on. I don’t envision giving my boys a character report card, but I definitely want to open the lines of communication and keep this handy list of seven traits nearby! I’ve printed out the list in a large, bold font, and we’ll use each trait as a dinner table discussion starter. What does it look like when someone is good at delaying gratification? How do self-disciplined people approach homework? I can think of a whole range of questions I’m certain my children will not want to discuss, but we’ll do it any way.
According to Tough, conscientiousness (a boring-sounding trait) is the characteristic that best predicts success in all parts of life (work place, relationships, health). He talks about words used to describe conscientious people: hard working, orderly, reliable, respectful of social norms, and high self-control. The most important descriptor, according to Tough? Self-control. Kids who are conscientious grow into adults who “do well without material incentives, have better grades in high school and college, commit fewer crimes, stay married longer, and live longer.” Seems like a good character trait to work on developing!
Can Character be Changed?
But how do we help develop conscientiousness in a kid who is simply not described by the above-mentioned adjectives? The secret, per Tough, is focusing on habits and teaching kids growth-mindset thinking (see Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset). Kids need to learn that they can change themselves by changing their habits. Not a self-disciplined person? Make some rules for yourself to help develop new habits and turn yourself into a self-disciplined person. When reading about the power of changed habits, I immediately thought of a good friend who over three years lost more than 100 pounds by changing her exercise and eating habits. Is she a self-disciplined person? She is now! Our kids need to learn the same thing. If they don’t have a particular character trait, they can develop it by practicing new habits.
“Habit and character are essentially the same thing. Some kids have good habits and some kids have bad habits. Kids understand it when you put it that way, because they know that habits might be hard to change, but they’re not impossible to change.”
-Angela Duckworth (quoted in How Children Succeed)
Doomed to Fail?
Even in the bleak landscape of extreme poverty, Tough shows us that a teenager who appears to be on a path toward failure can be helped. He tells some inspirational stories of kids who have lifted themselves from the depths of poverty onto a path towards success. What is needed, according to Tough, is just a single mentor who can show them that hard work and dedication can help them to achieve their goals. Tough describes several successful programs that are doing just that – taking kids from the worst of backgrounds and helping them develop the tools and skills needed to be successful in college and the workplace. I highly recommend anyone who works with teens (at risk, poor, affluent, or otherwise) to read Tough’s book and learn about how these programs have been successful.
I was inspired by Tough’s statement that, “..adolescence can be a time for a different kind of turning point, the profoundest sort of transformation: the moment when a young person manages to turn herself away from near-certain failure and begins to steer a course toward success.”
Read the Book
Tough covers so much in this book, and I won’t spoil it for you by including everything I learned, but I will add that he has a lot to say about the influence of family and the importance of parental nurturing. He also talks a lot about grit, an important character strength. He describes the right way to set goals, which involves not being overly optimistic or pessimistic but instead using “mental contrasting” to see both the positive outcome and the obstacles that need to be overcome. I loved Tough’s narrative about the chess team and the lessons the kids learned from their failures, from going over mistakes and getting to the bottom of why they made them. I wanted to take up chess immediately and make my kids join the school chess team, but only if they have a coach like the one Tough describes.
Read How Children Succeed. You won’t regret it. And you may be inspired, like I was, to work on some of your own character traits while you’re helping your kids develop theirs.
SevenCharacterTraits (PDF for you to print out for dinner table discussions!)
School of Hard Knocks, New York Times Magazine Sunday Book Review, by Anne Murphy Paul
- Paul Tough on How Children Succeed (wnyc.org)
- Shifting the focus from IQ and test scores to traits of perseverance, curiosity, and grit for long term success in kids (psychologicalscience.org)
- What’s a Teacher to Do? Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed (siobhancurious.com)
- ‘How Children Succeed’ – Q&A with Paul Tough (washingtonpost.com)
- Lack of discipline or character: ‘We have focused way too much on intelligence and cognitive skills’ (sott.net)
- How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, And The Hidden Power Of Character (radioalice.cbslocal.com)
- Op-Ed Columnist: Reading, Math and Grit (nytimes.com)
- Your IQ Doesn’t Matter & Other Lessons About Creativity From Children (99u.com)
- Portland schools install innovative character education models in advance of top author’s visit (bangordailynews.com)
- Primer on Success (educationnext.org)