the science of character


I picked up How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough because I thought it was a book about parenting. And though it does provide some useful information for parents, it also has a lot to say about formal education in our country. Some of the information in the book applies equally well to parents and teachers – and policy makers, for that matter.

The author points out that people tend to associate childhood success with intelligence, as measured on standardized tests, but he argues that what matters more are character traits such as grit, self-control, zest, conscientiousness, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. Current research suggests these character traits are rooted in brain chemistry and are molded by the environment in which a child grows.

One segment of the book describes the ways that some parents do (and do not) prepare their children to face the world on their own. The author discusses the challenges for children growing up in poverty but also for those growing up in affluence, with its “potentially detrimental effect on students’ character development.” Parents are cautioned to avoid inadvertently shielding their children from experiences that can lead to character growth.

It all sounds so good in theory. But then we get to real life, and my first instinct is to want to protect my boys. Like today when my five-year-old reported that last evening in choir Ben and Paige directed some unkind (and rather adult-sounding) words toward him. This wasn’t a first offense, either. It suddenly took some effort to avoid getting upset, recognize this as a potentially character-building experience  and process it with my son with that aim in mind.

That love your enemies stuff? It’s hard at any age.

6 thoughts on “the science of character

  1. Such an interesting post. I was totally on board with the author’s argument until it got personal in the end paragraph. I don’t know who Ben and Paige are, but I’m annoyed with them. I have such a hard time with bullying. It is very hard for me to know how to handle those situations.

    • Me too. And I debated writing that last part because I don’t think (and don’t mean to imply) that children should have to tolerate serious and persistent bullying. We’re not to that point yet.

  2. The book does give a person things to think about. I would agree that grit and curiosity is more important than intelligence. I would hire a hard worker over someone intelligent almost every time.

    • Yes, the book does promote thought. One of the word pictures that sticks with me is the one of rats licking and grooming their babies to comfort them and help them decompress after a stressful situation. The point for parents is that when children receive lots of hugs and reassurances of love, especially when they’re really young, they develop psychological strength and character.

  3. So true – at any age it is hard. But especially when it’s our own kids!
    What a powerful message you have shared!

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