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When my baby was born, a nurse at the hospital gave me a list of all the vaccines my child would need. It seemed like so much of what my daughter needed protecting from could be manufactured in tiny doses and injected into her, somehow making her safe. If only we could inoculate our kids against everything we want them to never experience—addictions, say, or big school failure, or bad choices with lifelong consequences during their crazy teenage years.
A new book, the best seller How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, makes me think in some sense maybe we can. After talking to researchers in neuroscience, psychology, and economics—and to families, teachers, youth workers, and kids about their experiences—Tough reports a hopeful finding. A whole lot of evidence now suggests we adults can instill in kids the things that best predict lifelong success: a set of skills and traits that help children focus on and pursue their goals and go on to lead happy, fulfilling lives. They include gratitude, curiosity, self-control, optimism, and grit.
Technically labeled “non-cognitive skills,” these qualities help a child like my own with a lot of privileges stay on track. But the book provides a hopeful message for the kids growing up in adversity, too. Ongoing stress for these children, due to poverty or abuse, can act like a toxin in a developing young mind, meaning these are precisely the kids who would need a vaccine against future hardships if we had one. How Children Succeed reports on innovative efforts around the country, ranging from parent supports to preschool approaches to mentoring for high schoolers, that do help poor kids develop non-cognitive skills—and go on to have more successes in life because of it.
The book has attracted a ton of attention, especially this election season. (Public radio’s This American Life recently devoted a full hour to the book, and three New York Times columnists have written glowingly on it.) This weekend, you can catch Tough speaking in Austin at two free events: an appearance at KIPP Austin Friday night and a panel discussion Saturday afternoon at the Texas Book Festival. I got to talk with Paul Tough about the book, what it means for parents, and what it means for a state like Texas.
LiveMom: So this set of traits in children—things like grit and optimism and curiosity—have a big role to play in childen’s later success, your book explains. It seems as though, unlike IQ, these are things adults arguably can help shape in almost any child. Can you discuss that some?
PT: There is evidence in neuroscience and psychology that suggests that IQ certainly is affected by issues early on, by the environments that kids live in, but after a certain point, age 8 or so, IQ doesn’t really develop or change at all. There are certain interventions that have worked with disadvantaged kids to raise IQ a couple of points, but that phases out over time. So it does seem like changing IQ is pretty difficult.
But there’s lots of evidence that influencing kids in non-cognitive skills, like grit or optimism, is certainly possible—and it’s possible later on in a child’s life. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls those personality traits, is the last part of the brain to stay malleable and plastic. It stays malleable in adolescence and even early adulthood. That’s the neuroscience basis for this idea that, even in adolescence, we can still help kids with these character strengths.
There’s also evidence from the types of interventions that I’ve written about that, especially when kids are able to form close relationships with a coach, a mentor, a teacher, a parent, a family member, it makes a difference. I certainly saw in my reporting—and there’s lots of people, teachers and others, who can attest to this from their own lives—poor kids even well into adolescence can make a profound transformation. And we know that that can make a difference in terms of their school success and in terms of their success defeating obstacles.
LM: You’re a dad, and you talk some in this book about how what you were learning affected that experience. What can parents do to help their kids develop these characteristics?
PT: There are two things that I’ve taken away from this literature and from this reporting that interest me in terms of parenting practices, two pieces of advice that seem almost contradictory. They’re really about different stages of a child’s life.
I feel really convinced by the literature around attachment that in the first year or two of a child’s life what they need more than anything to develop the underpinnings of these skills is attachment: a close, warm, nurturing relationship, attuned with adults. It could be a parent or another caregiver, or ideally a couple of adults. So I really do believe in this idea that the most important thing we can do to make children more confident and resilient and intrepid later on is to give them a lot of close, nurturing support early on.
But then later in childhood, talking specifically about kids who aren’t growing up in disadvantage, what they need is for parents to pull back a little bit, and let them experience some hardship, experience some barriers, some challenges, and for the parents to not try to solve all their problems for them. I don’t think this used to this used to be such a problem. (But) more parents now in the United States, especially in affluent communities, want to try and protect our kids from everything. There’s good evidence, again from psychological literature and from the experiences of families and teachers and schools, that when kids don’t get the opportunity to fail, to fall down sometimes and have to get themselves back up, they’re really missing out on some valuable character-building opportunities.
LM: You make the point in your book that a lot of the places where we as a society have been looking for solutions in terms of achievement for kids may not be the right places. Where did we used to go for solutions, and what environments maybe need more attention than they’ve been getting?
What I was talking about there was the academic achievement gap. Kids from poor communities are graduating from college in numbers so much lower than kids from affluent communities. I think we’ve been looking at the solution to that as a question of cognitive skills alone: we just need to give kids more cognitive stimulation, test them better, push them harder, start them earlier. That leaves out a big part of what it takes to achieve in those circumstances, and that is these character strengths, these non-cognitive skills, that help kids make it through setbacks and achieve goals like college graduation.
On the affluent end of things, parents especially in the last 20 years have become really anxious about this sense of competition early in childhood. This idea that early childhood is the ‘rugrat race,’ as economists that I quote call it, suggests the earlier that you can get your child [academically prepared], the better they’ll do in the long run. I think the evidence is building that that’s not the case. For kids anywhere on the income spectrum, what matters most, especially early in life, is to have a strong psychological base. That comes not from the sorts of things you can learn on flash cards but from close relationships with parents and other adults.
LM: So I’m hoping your book sells lots of copies here in Texas. We’re hearing from demographic experts that the central challenge for our state, if we want to have a bright future and not experience decline in the years when our kids are grown up, comes down to this issue of whether we can close the achievement gaps for poor and low-income children. Low-income kids make up about half of all Texas kids. You write about some interventions that really seem to work, so is it your sense that it is possible to close achievement gaps, between poor and affluent kids, and if so, how?
PT: If you look at those statistics around poverty, whether in Texas or anywhere else, they can be enormously daunting because most poor kids do not have good outcomes. There’s definitely a strong correlation between an adverse environment growing up and poor outcomes. I think most of the evidence suggests that it’s getting worse. It’s getting harder to pull yourself out of poverty than it was in the past. But there’s lot of evidence from individual kids, individual families, individual schools, that is very persuasive that kids overcome poverty all the time. . . . What we need to do now, what I and other people are pushing towards, is how to systematize that. Instead of just having a few lucky kids somehow manage to beat the odds, how can we create systems—both in terms of school systems and other systems—that can do that? And, you know, I don’t think the answers are easy. The problem is the last 10-15 years, we have been looking for the answers just in schools. We’ve had these examples of high-performing, high-poverty schools, and we’ve extrapolated from that somehow that schools alone are all that kids need to succeed. The reality is that for kids who are in deep disadvantage, in really extreme poverty and grow up in poverty and neighborhoods and families with a lot of chaos and instability, they need more than just educational interventions. They need interventions that help support their families and help support them outside of school as well.
But I do think that there is growing evidence that when we do that, when we can find the right sorts of systems to help those kids, we can make huge strides with helping not just thousands of kids succeed, but millions of kids to succeed.
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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.livemom.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Christine_Sinatra.jpg[/author_image] [author_info] Christine Sinatra is the communications director for Texans Care for Children and mom to a kindergartener. Her past experience includes working as a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and the Oakland Tribune company, being a Peace Corps volunteer for high school girls in Africa, and studying at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.[/author_info] [/author]