I have just completed reading Paul Tough’s, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and Hidden Power of Character. I highly recommend this book for anyone working with families. One of the main themes of the book is that personal traits, which he refers to as character, are more important than intelligence or academic skills for a person’s success. Much of the book focuses on how to build character traits during middle and high school, because fully developing these traits requires metacognition. Though it concentrates on middle and high school, this book provides considerable food for thought for those of us focusing on the early years of child development. With gratitude to Paul Tough, in the next few posts we explore parenting and the development of character.
What is character?
Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, worked with the faculties at the Knowledge Is Power Program and the Riverdale School in New York City to come up with a list of seven malleable traits they considered primary to children’s success:
- Social Intelligence,
How seeds of character are planted during early childhood
Tough cites theory and research on the importance of secure attachment for children’s healthy development of self-reliance, curiosity, social competence, and friendships later in life. He also discusses, as we have in this blog, that high quality parenting can serve as a protective factor – a “powerful buffer against the damages of toxic stress” experienced in family or community environments. In his book, Tough offers a synopsis of the longitudinal Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood, conducted by Alan Sroufe, Byron Egeland and colleagues, to illustrate the long-lasting power of parents’ nurturing behavior on children’s resilient outcomes.
Children whose parents had been judged disengaged or emotionally unavailable in early assessments of their parenting style did the worst in preschool, and teachers recommended special education or grade retention for two-thirds of them. ... Finally, the researchers followed the children through high school, where they found that early parental care predicted which students would graduate even more reliably than IQ or achievement tests scores. Using measures of early parenting only, ... the researchers found they could have predicted with 77 percent accuracy, when the children were not yet four years old, which ones would later drop out of high school.
[p. 36, Paul Tough. For more on the Minnesota Study see their book, The Development of the Person: The Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Childhood, by L. Alan Sroufe, Byron Ricker Egeland, Elizabeth Carlson, and W. Andrew Collins. (2005) NY: Guilford Publications.]
The Minnesota study is consistent with other studies showing that early quality parenting promotes healthy attachment (For example, J. Belsky and R.M. Fearon (2002). Early attachment security, subsequent maternal sensitivity, and later child development: Does continuity in development depend upon continuity of caregiving? Attachment and Human Development, 4(3):361-87), and that parenting is a key factor in children’s future success. This research provides the justification that early childhood programs focus efforts on promoting more nurturing parenting, as this may be the most effective way to support children’s development.
Tough’s book got me to thinking, about which parenting behaviors promote the development of these character traits. One can certainly argue that developing these traits fully requires metacognition that could be left until the early teen years. However, one can also argue that the foundations of these characters are formed in the early years, when parents play a major role in their children’s development. The research cited above supports the concept of intervening early. Why not start early supporting families to build nurturing parenting that fosters resilience of children when they are faced with the daily challenges of life many years later? Can a parenting assessment, like the Keys to Interactive Parenting Scale (KIPS) serve in this effort?
In the next three posts, we will define the 7 character traits, and explore how a parenting assessment could help in guiding parents in supporting their children’s development of these 7 character traits that lead to success. How do you think parents of young children can support the development of Grit, Self-Control, Zest, Social Intelligence, Gratitude, Optimism and Curiosity? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.
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