If you read only one non-fiction book this year, make it "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character" by Paul Tough. Tough, a Canadian-born journalist and broadcaster, has written extensively about poverty, education and politics. He's a regular contributor to my all-time favourite podcast, This American Life, as well as to magazines including Harper's, The New Yorker, Slate, and GQ
In "How Children Succeed," Tough examines a wealth of research from diverse fields of economics, politics, child development and education. He points out that over the past decade, experts have shown that character traits are more important than cognitive ability (i.e., IQ) in predicting success in later life. As such, character traits (sometimes termed "non-academic" or "soft" skills) like perseverance, openness to new experience, and ability to regulate one's emotions are critical components of equipping our kids for life's rigours.
The good news here is that, unlike cognitive ability which is relatively static past the age of 6 or 7 years of age, character traits can be learned throughout the lifespan. And so it follows that all kids, regardless of cognitive resources, can benefit from learning how to deal with difficult things, how to keep trying in the face of adversity and how to keep their emotions in check.
Let's be honest. These are skills that even some grown-ups struggle with. How best, then, to teach these elusive qualities to our kids?
First, let me say that I wholeheartedly agree with Tough when he asserts that our public education system could be (and is, in some rare instances is) an ideal forum for helping our kids acquire these skills. In my perfect world, school curriculum would address, in equal parts, children's emotional, physical and academic needs. For example, conflict resolution and mediation would be a bone fide curriculum goal that all kids must acquire some skill in. Similarly, curriculum infused with the importance of emotional intelligence would be non-negotiable. And the importance of physical activity would be consistently emphasized from K-12 - not only because it is good for one's body but because a wealth of research has demonstrated that better physical fitness is intricately related to improved brain functioning.
From a parenting perspective, there are many things that you can do to help your child develop solid character. In fact, you probably already are. Every time you listen respectfully (and no, not that half-assed-messing around-with-your-iPhone-and-listening-crap) to your child, you build her sense of worth and therefore her character: you're conveying that she is worthy of being listened to. Every time you encourage your child to try again, even though it sucks and he hates it, you're building character. When you praise your child for the effort she put in rather than the outcome she obtained, you're building character.
Here are some other practical character-builders (in no particular order):
1) Do something new with your child. This type of learning stimulates growth and development in the frontal lobe of the brain (i.e., the combined parts that control higher-order thinking like planning, initiating and abstract thinking), as well as helping to build confidence in trying new things. To solidify the learning, set up opportunities for your child to apply his or her newly-acquired skills.
2) Encourage your child to keep a "rose file" - that is, a scrapbook or journal of mementos and examples that demonstrate your child's great character qualities. Include, for example, reminders of when he was a particularly good friend to someone, or made the right choice even though it was really difficult. When your child is experiencing challenging times, check out the rose file and show her the "evidence" that demonstrates the great qualities she possess. Reminder her of how good she felt when she exercised these qualities.
3) Let your kids try things you know they'll be horrible at. And then be there to support them when they fail miserably. Remind them that failing is a really important part of learning, as well as a necessary part of life. Help them understand what they might do differently next time to improve. And insist that they do it again. Resist, at all costs, the urge to do it for them. Watching your kid suffer is excruciating but it's a critical way for her to become adept at coping with feelings of all kinds in a productive, healthy way.
4) Learn to manage your own stress effectively. This is key. Consider Paul Tough's exploration of the compelling research findings that kids who grow up in impoverished circumstances are most adversely impacted not by the deprivation per se, but by the stress that the circumstances cause in their family unit. Otherwise stated, kids suffer when their parents are stressed - probably for a lot of reasons, including the fact that their parents have less time to spend with them, as well as fewer psychological resources to share with them.
And, last and certainly most importantly, try to model good character qualities for your kids. Your kids will probably remember very little of what you say. They will remember the things you do. So, be nice to other people - even when they are rude to you. Next time you're in the car with your kids and that ass-face cuts you off, take a deep breath and count to ten rather than shrieking what you're really thinking. If you make a promise, keep it. Be consistently reliable (and that includes being on time). If you make a mistake, take responsibility. Do the right thing, even when it's difficult. Share your failures with your kids, and talk about how you dealt with them. In the words of H. Jackson Brown, "Live so that when your children think of fairness and integrity, they think of you."