Tough life lessons

Many parents believe success is doing well at school and in exams.

Academic attainment gives children a better chance of a successful career, a new book argues that the cognitive skills developed as a child may not be as important as the qualities that build character.

How Children Succeed author Paul Tough studied children’s education, ability and success, and concluded: “The conventional wisdom that has guided our thinking about child development and education has been misguided.

“We’ve been emphasising a set of skills — IQ and the sort of cognitive skills that are measured on standardised tests — and a lot of people believe they are the one determinant of how well a child does in life. But the scientists and educators I write about in the book have identified a very different set of skills, things like grit and perseverance, conscientiousness, curiosity and optimism, which they say are at least as important as those cognitive, IQ-type skills, and arguably much more so.”

Strengths such as these often explain why people overcome harsh beginnings and achieve huge success. “I think educational attainment matters a lot,” he says. “But the skills we need to succeed, both in school and beyond, are not just standardised test-taking skills.

“We can become overly focused on academic attainment. When you look at people who succeed in life, they aren’t necessarily the ones who excelled at school — they have these character strengths and go on to do amazing things.

“It’s true on the flip-side, as well — there are a lot of kids who seem like the perfect students, but when they get out into the world, they find it very difficult to do well, and in many cases that’s because they lack the character strengths that help them succeed.”

Tough says such skills can be developed as a child grows, although it’s not as simple as reading a book or learning times tables. It’s important for a child not to grow up in a very stressful environment, he says, as this leads to children’s stress-response systems not developing properly, which in turn affects not only their physical and mental health, but also the development of their character.

In the primary school years, a major part of the way important character skills develop is through dealing with challenges and failure, and having the right attitude to failure.

But parents need to be careful not to approach their children’s potential failures in the wrong way, says Tough, who points out that some mums and dads will talk to their kids about setbacks, adversity and failure as though they were real catastrophes.

“That makes it difficult for kids to develop the grit, perseverance and self-confidence that they need to move forward.

“Parents need to find ways to make it acceptable for their kids to fail in a way that’s productive — failure itself doesn’t lead to good character, it’s learning how to manage it and deal with setbacks.”

When something goes wrong, in many cases it’s a good idea for parents to step back and let children solve their own problems and deal with the consequences, he says.

Another thing parents can do is talk to their children about qualities such as perseverance, optimism and conscientiousness as skills that every person needs to learn and can get better at, he says.

“There are a lot of young people who don’t hear that message, but when they do, it really changes the way they feel about themselves and what they can do.”

He points out that Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck found that there are two types of people: those who have a fixed mindset and believe intelligence and other skills are static and inborn, and those who have a growth mindset and believe intelligence can be improved.

Dweck discovered that students who think intelligence can be improved actually do improve their grades at school.

Tough says parents can help children develop important character skills in the following ways:

* Curiosity — Talk about what curious people do (asking a lot of questions, experimenting), emphasise that they’re positive traits, and let children work things out for themselves with low-tech toys. Allow their natural curiosity to flourish.

* Perseverance — Encouraging children to overcome mild adversity and failure themselves. Tough illustrates how perseverance can be maximised with the example of the US chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel, whose middle school students consistently win national chess championships despite being from low-income backgrounds.

Spiegel helps her students learn to manage failure by going through every chess game move by move afterwards and looking at their failures honestly.

* Optimism — Tough refers to the book Learned Optimism by the University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman, who argues optimism is a teachable skill, not an inborn trait.

Pessimistic adults and children can train themselves to be more hopeful, says Seligman, by not viewing negative events as ‘personal, permanent and pervasive’, but instead finding specific, short-term, limited explanations for setbacks.

* Self-control — Growing up in a stress-free environment helps children develop self-control, and it can be increased by encouraging them to see it as a strength that will help them in life.

Tough warns that a key part of helping children succeed is parents not wrapping them in cotton wool.

“Protecting children is an instinct and something that comes naturally to parents,” he says, “but when we over-protect them, we’re doing more harm than good.

“Moderate amounts of adversity seem to be really positive for kids. Dealing with serious adversity is not good for them, but there’s increasing evidence that never having faced failure and adversity in childhood is damaging as well.”

* How Children Succeed by Paul Tough is published by Random House, priced €15.65.


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