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Originally published Sunday, September 23, 2012 at 7:31 PM

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Gift of grit, curiosity help kids succeed

Character helps kids succeed and it can be taught.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Hug your kids and kiss their boo-boos, at least until you have to step back so they can develop grit.

Paul Tough has a 3-year-old, so he knows how parents can obsess over their children's upbringing. It's a competitive society, and we don't want our kids left behind.

Tough also has a new book about what it takes for a child to make it: "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character," out this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Last week at Town Hall in Seattle, Tough said he and his wife have a shelf full of child-rearing books.

I know about that. My wife and I accumulated a pile of them. New ones keep coming out because there is a big audience of insecure parents to buy them. Often, the newest book says what you were just doing is all wrong.

Tough's book does that, but it might also make you relax a bit, which is not the usual effect.

Tough pulls together research and real-world experiences that indicate the relentless pursuit of higher test scores and greater proficiency in this subject or that is not the way to produce successful people.

As the title says, if you want success, build character and the rest will follow.

The book addresses the ways in which middle- and upper-income families have sometimes forgotten that.

It is also a book about increasing the prospects of the country's poorest children.

Tough is a reporter who brings the science of learning to life with stories about the researchers, the educators who put their studies into practice and students themselves.

Many of the stories he tells revolve around two schools: KIPP Academy, a middle school in the South Bronx whose students are black, Hispanic and mostly from poor families, and the elite Riverdale Country School a few miles away.

Each of their principals was looking for something that was missing and wound up in the same office at the same time pursuing the same research for very different reasons.

KIPP you may have read about. The school has been praised for raising the academic achievement of its students, making them among the top scorers in New York City.

But at first the gains didn't stick. Kids excelled while they were at KIPP, but slid backward in high school and too often failed to graduate from college.

At Riverdale, students weren't always developing the qualities that are honed by facing and overcoming adversity. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a book on the effects of stress on the brains of young children. Tough revisits a lot of that research.

The children at KIPP are overwhelmed with stress-inducing conditions in their lives.

The children at Riverdale were shielded from the possibility of significant failure. They worked hard but weren't fundamentally challenged.

A big part of building character is overcoming failure. Too much adversity is bad, but so is too little, which doesn't allow a child to build grit.

Grit is one of the characteristics of successful people. Here's a list of the others: self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

The presence or absence of those qualities is a better indicator of future success than test scores or IQ.

KIPP kids were failing later because character was being enforced from the outside by rules and structures. Now the school (part of a national network of charter schools) works at building the traits from the inside out.

It is possible for parents and educators to nurture those qualities in children and maybe even in themselves.

The book talks about how to help children develop those characteristics. That isn't always easy to do, especially as children age. As always, the best thing is to get a good start.

Tough begins the book with a story about rats. Rats whose moms lick and groom them when they are young and feeling stressed do much better in life than those who weren't comforted in that way.

The rat study was a step toward proving strong early attachment also helps humans overcome a lot of bumps later.

If more parents hug and kiss and coo in those first years, we'd have a lot more happy and successful children.

I'm sure this book isn't the last word on any of that, but it does advance the genre.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday.

Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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