'Children Succeed' With Character, Not Test Scores Author Paul Tough says parents should focus less on SAT and IQ scores, and more on fostering grit, curiosity and character in their kids. He argues that attachment is important in the first few years, but parents need to know when to step back and let their kids learn through trial and error.

'Children Succeed' With Character, Not Test Scores

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Author Paul Tough spent time in some of the roughest neighborhoods of Chicago. He was watching young men and women who found a way to overcome unimaginable challenges. One teenager who caught his eye was named Keitha. She was sexually abused by a relative as a girl, fought a lot in school and was on the verge of dropping out. But then she entered an intensive mentoring program that changed her life.

PAUL TOUGH: She made it through high school, overcame a lot of obstacles, and now she's getting a cosmetology degree. So, for some people, that wouldn't be a huge success. For her, she has overcome these obstacles that I think are not only going to set her on a path for material success, but also sort of a richer, psychological success.

GREENE: And success is what Paul Tough delves into in his new book "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character." He argues that success is not always about IQ scores or standardized tests or the fattest vocabularies. It's often about the ways young people build character.

TOUGH: For some people, that path through college is so easy that they can get out into life and they've never really been challenged. And I think that they get into their 20s and their 30s and they really feel lost. They feel like they haven't had those sorts of character-building experiences as adolescents, as kids, that really make a difference when they get to adulthood.

GREENE: And the difference maker can vary depending on the person. Mentoring programs that focus on goal setting can certainly be helpful. He also says parents should try to teach their kids manage stress from a very early age. In the book, Tough brings up some pretty hard-core science. And when he joined us from our New York bureau, he told me about one group of researchers who were studying baby rats.

TOUGH: They had noticed that when baby rats got stressed out - when they were handled by lab technicians, let's say - there were some mother rats who would lick and groom their baby rats and others who would not. And so the scientists got interested in this one particular behavior, and they tried to figure out what kind of difference it made.

And as they did a series of experiments, they found out it made a huge difference. The rats who, as babies, were licked and groomed, did much better on all sorts of things when they reached adulthood. They were braver, more curious; that had actually changed the shape of certain parts of their brains.

And so, I think there's a real parallel there for humans. We don't know for sure that our brains work exactly like rat brains, but I think there's a lot of parallels between that and research on attachment; that psychologists who have studied attachment have found that when human kids have that same kind of licking and grooming-style bonding with their parents, especially in the first year of life, it gives them all sorts of psychological strength, confidence, character, that when they reach school age and even into adulthood, will make a huge difference in how well they do.

GREENE: And this is going to surprise some parents, I think, because I think a lot of parents worry about suffocating their kids with too much attention and doting on them and so forth. Is that not a problem? Is the key, really, to give them as much affection as possible when they're really young?

TOUGH: I think this is a real trick of parenthood, which is that I think there are two stages and it's hard to tell where the transition goes from one to the other. When kids are really young, my sense from the research is you really can't be too loving. That really what kids need at that point is just support, attention, parents who are really attuned to the child's needs.

But at some point somewhere around one, or two or three, that really starts to change. And what kids need is independence and challenge.

GREENE: You bring up a lot of keys to success. I mean, kids kind of learning how to confront failure and confront stress, developing really a strength of character; having parents who, you know, this attachment - this idea of attachment, parents nurturing them when the kids are very young. And there have been a lot of assumptions like, you know, high IQ tests, big vocabularies, that we all assume predicted success.

Are you just blowing those old assumptions out of the water?

TOUGH: Not entirely, no. I mean, I absolutely - cognitive skills and IQ make a big difference. Vocabulary matters. But the scientists, the economists and neuroscientists and psychologists who I have been studying and writing about are really challenging the idea that IQ, that standardized test scores, that those are the most important things in a child's success.

And I think there's lots of evidence out there now that says that these other strengths, these character strengths, or non-cognitive skills, are at least as important in a child's success and quite possibly more important. But right now we've got an education system that really doesn't pay attention to those skills at all. And so, you, know, we're very good at trying to build those cognitive skills. But for some kids, for most kids, they really need a whole lot more in order to succeed.

GREENE: You said something that caught my attention; an education system that does not pay attention to those types of skills that you're talking about. What do you think exactly is lacking?

TOUGH: Well, I think schools just aren't set up right now to try to develop things like grit, and perseverance and curiosity. I think especially in a world where we are more and more focused on standardized tests that measure a pretty narrow range of cognitive skills, teachers are less incentivized to think about how to develop those skills in kids.

GREENE: And, Paul, you have a son, right?

TOUGH: I do.

GREENE: How old is he?

TOUGH: He's 3.

GREENE: I'm curious to know how your approach has changed as a parent after digging into all of this research.

TOUGH: Yeah, my wife and I had our son just as I was diving into this research. And so I spent a lot of time, you know, going back and forth between playing with him on the floor and then reading these neuroscience and developmental psychology papers and trying not to let them influence me too much.


TOUGH: But I think I took a couple of things away. One was really that in infancy, that kind of attachment-promoting behavior; that helping him manage stress - the way that those mother rats helped their pups manage stress - was a hugely important thing, and that was going to make a big difference in terms of how his brain develops, how his stress response system develops, and that that was going to help him a lot going forward.

But now I really find myself wrestling with this question of how to make this transition into standing back more, and giving him more challenge and letting him fall down - sometimes quite literally - and not pick him up and let him pick himself up.

And definitely what I find, and I know a lot of parents have found this before me, is that he really likes that. You know, what he wants at this stage of life is to prove that he can do everything. And I think it's the most valuable thing I can do for him right now is to stand back and let him do that.

GREENE: You've certainly given parents a lot to think about as they go into this new school year. Thanks so much for talking to us.

TOUGH: Well, thank you.

GREENE: That's Paul Tough, author of the new book, "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character."


GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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