A View From Glen Hill: Molding kids’ character

Attending graduations this summer, I was amazed to hear how frequently the words “perseverance” and “resilience” were mentioned. Perhaps the speakers were channeling Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.
Tough’s thesis is that a child’s success in life depends more on qualities of perseverance (the “grit” of his book’s title, as I mentioned in my last column when I referenced his book in passing), resilience, conscientiousness, self-control, curiosity, optimism, and integrity than on such things as IQ-tested intelligence, GPAs, and SAT/ACT scores. Those seven qualities are sometimes collectively referenced by scholarly researchers as “non-cognitive traits,” but they can also be subsumed under the word “character.” They are not only developable (as opposed to only being innate) but also are best developed over the course of a child’s earliest years and continuing through secondary school.
In fact, the very good news is that even for those kids whose home life and early education have not even remotely nurtured those qualities, catch-up is achievable. Moreover, having had to face major obstacles can actually offer advantages to kids who are able to make the most of those experiences, even for those in the most challenging circumstances. Stories of success (and, sadly, failure) are featured in his book as Tough describes programs that seek to build these character traits in some of our nation’s most at-risk kids and as he follows specific kids’ progress and setbacks. However, Tough draws his major conclusions not anecdotally but from much very careful scholarly research over the past several decades.
Sadly, our nation’s results in terms of college graduation rates have dropped radically both in absolute terms and in comparison with other nations, both developed and developing. Some argue that this trend shows that too many students are being admitted to American colleges who are unqualified to go; they offer their judgment based on results of IQ tests, GPAs, and SAT/ACT scores. But Tough’s analysis strongly indicates otherwise, with much academic as well as personal observation to support it; overly simplistic judgments miss much more fundamental factors that explain such things as low college-completion rates (in which the U.S. ranks second-to-last among the 34 OECD-member countries).
Those factors include especially the seven character traits listed above that are “molded in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up” and are also teachable so that, under the right guidance, they may be especially well acquired, as previously mentioned, by those who face adversity. Tough offers multiple examples of programs that are successfully addressing the development of those traits. These programs do so not just for kids whose families fall at the poverty line (22% of all American kids) but for those 10% of American kids whose family income is 50% ($11,000 annually for a family of four) or more below that line and for whom the stress of uncertainty over whether they will be fed, clothed, and even physically safe is often continuous. Yet even in such challenging economic circumstances, “parents and other caregivers who are able to form close nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh environment,” and careful tailored character-development programs can build on that foundation.
Tough continues, “When advocates for a new way of thinking about children and disadvantage make their case, they often base it on economics: as a nation, we should change our approach to child development because it will save us money and improve the economy.” But he urges that the real motivation should extend far beyond that, to saving kids’ lives and futures. The techniques exist, beginning with guiding parents to create a secure, nurturing environment for their young children no matter what their financial circumstances, and continuing from there into programs that teach and constantly reinforce these traits.  What is lacking is large-scale implementation: what we have now is “a disjointed, ad hoc system of government agencies and programs.”
Ironically, for those from much higher-income families who move along a predictable continuum of successful advancement but lack those grit-enhancing experiences and character-developing “interventions,” the consequences can be moving on to adult occupations that are on a continuum of low risk, with what may be significant financial rewards but not necessarily life-enhancement for them. Thus, those young people’s failure to develop these foundational character traits can wind up hurting them just as it does those on the other end of the economic spectrum.