Two articles have been stimulated by the publishing of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character.” One is in the Wall Street Journal by Mr. Tough, “Opting Out of the 'Rug Rat Race'” and the other is by Joe Nocera in the New York Times, “Reading, Math and Grit.” Both ask, “Which is more important to student success, character or cognitive skills, and what kind of interventions might help children succeed?
The whole idea behind this way of thinking is flawed. Parents who follow it will jump on a new fad and, once again, be overwhelmed by anxiety.
I challenge some of the ideas behind both the old and the new ways of thinking such as that:
- One set of characteristics – either cognitive skills in math, language, science, etc. or personality/character traits like grit, persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition – are much more important than the other.
- We can figure out what all the factors are and assign percentages to each based on its contribution toward success. These factors will be reliable determinants of success.
- We can improve the success rate of individuals by thinking and discussing ‘why” some children succeed while others don’t in terms of abstractions and generalizations such as “American parenting,” “affluent parents,” “parental anxiety,” “over-protective parents,” “permissive parents,” “character,” cognitive skills.”
- We must actively intervene to ensure that our children learn the most important attributes. Based on the latest research, we can develop methods to teach these to all children so they’ll be successful.
When I think of what’s necessary for success, I think not of a list of factors with percentages of importance attached to each factor, but of a target with a bull’s eye in the center containing of all the abilities we want our children and ourselves to have. Did anyone really think that mastering cognitive skills without developing grit would lead to success? Or does anyone think the opposite now? Both areas are necessary and the appropriate mixture of characteristics depends on the individual.
In general, grit matters no matter what you do, but what it takes to succeed as a lawyer can be very different from what it takes to succeed as a genius programmer or a fashion designer. What it takes to succeed as a factory worker, a small business owner or a bus driver may be very different mixes. What it takes to participate in team activities and in individual activities can be different. What it takes to face harassment, bullying and abuse can be different depending on who’s doing it.
All these discussions are in the abstract and general. What we can do something about is in the moment-to-moment reality of us and our families.
How many of us really tried to keep our kids from experiencing any failure and disappointment? How many of us really covered up each of their mistakes and failures so that blame was never on the actions of our children? Most of us try to teach the lessons of life to our children.
Each child is different. Each child learns some particular lessons the hard way, while other kids get those same lessons immediately, but learn other lessons the hard way. And some just never seem to learn, no matter how hard we try. Most kids learn the universal lessons despite the times we mess up the opportunities to teach.
My conclusion about these ruminations is to stop thinking in abstractions and generalizations, stop trying to figure out the correct way that will guarantee success for an average person or a middle class person or an affluent person or a disadvantaged person. Instead, focus on our individual kids and ourselves.
We know the obvious – both grit/character/personality and cognitive skills matter. Which ones do we need to develop more? Which ones does each individual kid need to develop more? Which kids need to develop more grit? Which kids need to learn when to stop beating their heads against which brick walls?
We also know that if we protect our children from hurt, pain, mistakes, failures and realistic estimations of their talents, we’ll promote arrogance, weakness, hesitation and defeatism. Facing challenges is the only way we learn to face challenges and to overcome them and our weaknesses.
I’ve focused on middle and upper class parents and kids instead of disadvantaged kids because I think most of the people who read this blog fall into those categories. But I’d say the same to everyone.
If you’re still protecting your children or if they think they know best or they’re entitled to do what they want, change your approach immediately.
Paul Tough ends his article with “Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.” I agree whole-heartedly.