I'm finally going to discuss How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. This one was mentioned in Failing Our Brightest Kids which I reviewed a while back; then my friend Teresa mentioned she was reading it.
From the book description: "Drawing on groundbreaking research in neuroscience, economics, and psychology, Tough shows that the qualities that matter most have less to do with IQ and more to do with character: skills like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism."
We have relied extensively on standardized testing to determine which children have the best chance at academic success. All of the testing from elementary school through high school and scores on the ACT or SAT exams are hugely important in the evaluation of kids. But we all know individuals who have not performed particularly well, and in some cases performed abysmally, on standardized tests and yet have been quite successful in college and in life.
Most people have a common sense realization that hard work pays off and that certain character traits are more important than IQ when it comes to achievement. The question is how are character traits like grit, curiosity, self-control, and optimism instilled? What can schools and teachers do to reinforce them?
Tough's research focuses on children who are disadvantaged by poverty, violence, and/or abuse. Why and how do some of these kids overcome these circumstances? The most important element (again, common sense) is that the kids who succeed have at least one person truly invested in their care. Despite poverty and violence, if a child has one person who values and nurtures him, the chance of success in school and in life increases exponentially.
Tough interviews students and educators and provides some interesting glimpses at some ways of intervening by innovative educators, methods that have helped trump the inauspicious beginnings many of our children experience. Those children who have been nurtured have more self-control and can better utilize other positive traits.
What I took away from this on the simplest level is that, especially among the disadvantaged children of this country, the emphasis put on cognitive development before they attend school is less important than learning self-control and persistence and developing an optimistic approach to circumstances.
In other words--yes, children from disadvantaged backgrounds may have smaller vocabularies and fewer learning opportunities at home, but what enables them to increase vocabulary, learn to read, learn to problem-solve, and ultimately improve their overall skills is largely dependent on developing self-control, being willing to work hard, and believing that they can succeed. And for that, they need at least one person who values them. Nurture allows Nature?
This is really not much of a book review, more of a disentangling of my thoughts about it. I think the following is a good summary of why you might want to read it.
When asked how writing the book influenced his behavior as a parent, Tough replied:
"In the end, though, this research had a surprising effect: it made me more relaxed as a parent. When Ellington was born, I was very much caught up in the idea of childhood as a race--the faster a child develops skills, the better he does on tests, the better he’ll do in life. Having done this reporting, I’m less concerned about my son’s reading and counting ability. Don’t get me wrong, I still want him to know that stuff. But I think he’ll get there in time. What I’m more concerned about is his character--or whatever the right synonym is for character when you’re talking about a three-year-old. I want him to be able to get over disappointments, to calm himself down, to keep working at a puzzle even when it’s frustrating, to be good at sharing, to feel loved and confident and full of a sense of belonging. Most important, I want him to be able to deal with failure." (the highlighting is mine)
Digression: another one of those synchronicitous events occurred after reading the book, when I found a couple of related articles.
The first one is about researchers studying kindergarten kids and giving them a Social Competency Test. One important factor mentioned was self-control; the study was over a period of nineteen years.
The second one, and more visually dramatic than words, compares the brain scans of children. The brain of a three-year-old child who has been neglected and/or abused is so shrunken, so visibly different from the brain of a three-year-old who received love and care.
This really isn't anything new, when we remember what happened to children in orphanages during WWII and again later, with dramatic accounts of Romanian children in institutions. Somehow, though seeing these images has an even more chilling effect.