The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines grit as “firmness of mind or spirit: unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.” Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed”, is convinced that grit and other similar character skills like curiosity and self-control are keys to success that are often overlooked. According to Tough, the narrative we normally use to explain success is one about intelligence and thus we focus on things like SAT scores and IQ tests. But, Tough posits, cognitive skill alone provides no guarantee that someone is equipped for success and rather that character is needed as well.
Right at the beginning of the book we are given a provocative study that exemplifies this understanding of grit being a crucial asset. James Heckman is famous in certain circles for his GED study. This study sought to compare high school graduates with GED-recipients.
“According to their scores on achievement tests, which correlate closely with IQ, GED recpients were every bit as smart as high-school graduates. But when Heckman looked at their path through higher education, he discovered that GED recipients weren’t anything like high-school graduates. At age twenty-two, Heckman found, just 3 percent of GED recipients were enrolled in a four-year university or had completed some kind of post-secondary degree, compared to 46 percent of high-school graduates.
In fact, Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes – annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs – GED recipients look exactly like high-school dropouts, despite the fact that they have earned this . . . extra credential, and despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts.” (xvillll)
Heckman’s interpretation of the GED study is that the reason for the disparity is a lack of character traits (like grit) in the GED-recipients. Paul Tough explains: “Those traits – an inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification; the tendency to follow through on a plan – also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace, and in life in general.” (pg. xix)
One crucial avenue for nurturing grit and other needed character traits is found within the parent-child bond. At one point in the book, we are introduced to the failing Roseland school district in Chicago. When the author asked Steve Gates, a YAP (youth advocate program) advocate about the situation, he mentioned that family issues at home spill over into the classroom. And of course there were other factors mentioned like gang violence and drug addiction in this exploration of Roseland. Still, Gates key insight was on the role of family.
“But while Gates is careful not to blame Roseland’s parents for the neighborhood’s crisis, he has decided that for him, at least, the most effective vehicle for improving children’s outcomes is not the school or the church or even the job center; it is the family – or, if necessary, the creation of substitute or supplemental family structures for children who don’t have them.” (pg. 43)
Parenting is work of nurture. We know how powerful setting an example is and that kids will do as they see their parents do more so than they will do what their parents tell them they should do. In some ways, character – good or bad – is contagious. If a parent has a strong work ethic, the child will “catch” that work ethic. In other ways, teaching character is much more intensively hands-on, like insisting that a child clean up her toys when she’s done playing or having the child make his bed each morning. In all of these cases, it is the nurture-dimension of parenting that helps build character.
But interestingly enough, parenting is effective down to the molecular roots. Paul Tough writes about current neuroscience research on attachment which suggests that, in sum, the loving attention of a parent in the early years of a child allows that child – on a biological level – to deal with obstacles, stress, and set-backs down the road. This makes sense intuitively: parents provide a safety net that allows children to explore, fall, fail (and Tough reiterates that failure is an important part of growth), and develop while also protecting them from the cruel realities of the world until they are ready to deal with those realities.
If you’re still not convinced that parents can have such a profound impact on their children, listen to what the author says about an attachment intervention program for foster parents of young children, “ABC” – Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up. This program was developed by Mary Dozier, a psychologist at the University of Delaware.
ABC encourages foster parents to respond to their infants’ cues more attentively and warmly and calmly. After just ten home visits, children in ABC show higher rates of secure attachment, and their cortisol levels are indistinguishable from those of typical, well-functioning, non-foster-care children. What is perhaps most remarkable about Dozier’s intervention is that only the parents receive the treatment, not the children in their care – and yet it has a profound effect on the HPA-axis functioning of the children.
“How Children Succeed” is filled with a great many interesting tidbits and thought-provoking explorations. Contained within its pages are lessons learned from: middle school chess players forced to analyze each game, win or lose, challenges faced by elitist prep schools as leaders want to teach character even if that means introducing risk, and growth mindset as exemplified by the students at KIPP schools.
Ultimately though, my takeaway from the book is that children succeed when attachment is nurtured and parents are acting as buffer, compass, sage, safety net for their children as they cultivate within their children, these character traits that are so necessary to flourish in society.