Paul Tough is drawing crowds to readings and broader attention for his new book that argues we have our educational priorities mixed up.
Character, he argues in his heavily researched, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” (Houghton Mifflin), is far more important than IQ or mere grades.
Tough, an education journalist, touched on the subject in a much-discussed New York Times magazine story last year, “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?”
After that story was published, he told me in an e-mail conversation, “I heard from many parents, especially affluent parents, who said that they really related to the idea that their kids needed some failure, some adversity, in their lives in order to succeed. Many of them were concerned that their kids were too insulated from failure, and many of them felt at least in part responsible for that insulation.
“I also heard from readers who felt that these ideas were just as relevant to their own lives as to their kids’ lives — that they themselves had been too scared of failure growing up, and that they had missed out on character-building experiences as a result,” he said.
Tough went on to interview pediatricians, psychologists, neuroscientists and teachers to examine the importance of character — qualities like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control — in a child’s success.
He found that it matters most of all. And, that these are not necessarily innate traits, but ones that can be taught and nurtured.
Below is our edited Q&A.
JD: Did we, culturally, do a better job on the character-building front in the past? If so, what changed our focus, and how did we get so far afield?
PT: I think there’s always been a tension in American education and in American culture in general about how to teach character and how important character really is in success. But what’s new is this intensely competitive hothouse environment that a lot of young people in high-achieving schools experience. They’re under a ton of stress and pressure, they have loads of homework, and yet they never really face true challenges. They never have to deal with failure. And I think as a result, they miss out on one of the best opportunities a child can have to develop their character.
JD: What are some specific steps a parent can take to develop the skills you talk about?
PT: Babies need their parents to respond to their needs and their cries and comfort them when they’re stressed out. But as our kids get older, they need that less and less — and in fact, they often need the opposite. They need us to stand back a bit, to let them fall down and pick themselves back up, to let them solve their problems for themselves. That can be a real challenge for parents. There’s something deep in our DNA that pushes us to try to protect our kids from every kind of adversity. But what we’re coming to understand now is that in trying to protect our kids, we’re actually sometimes harming them.
JD: What might a parent look for (or push for) in a school curriculum that would further develop these skills?
PT: Unfortunately, there’s no off-the-shelf curriculum that can teach character strengths like grit and self-control and optimism. I think there are some steps that teachers can take in the classroom — I think it helps to talk more openly about these strengths and to talk about them as qualities that people can change in them.
But I think the more important change is a cultural one. When a school really changes its culture to encourage risk-taking and challenge and allow for the possibility of real failure on the part of its students, then I think that students will have more opportunity to develop character skills.
And, for a school’s culture to change, parents, teachers, administrators and students all have to change.
How do you define character? Do you consciously try to build character in your kids? How?