Anne BoysenArticles

How Children Succeed. The book and it’s appeal to gritty generation X parents

Anne Boysen

If you’re a parent like me you regularly crash into sleep in one of your children’s’ beds after putting them to bed around dusk. Then you wake up a few hours later and drag your sleep drunk self into your own bed where the night trolls start spinning your head with worries that have built up earlier in the day. There are the bills you didn’t pay, the email you sent your boss that just didn’t come out the way it should, the pile of unfolded laundry that keeps growing.

And then there’s THAT thought, the very reason why you collapsed under the feathery weight of a little chapter book about unicorns or whatever. The only part you remember from your reading session is that your child was struggling so hard keeping her eyes open and comprehending the little words that just seemed to float all over the page. So despite having forced yourself to fiercely focus on a fantasy-equestrian pastel colored world just so that you could quiz your daughter about the contents of the book, you both got more caught up into a mundane mess of pronunciation challenges and counting page numbers than deciphering any meaning at all. And just when you opened your mouth to give your daughter a tired lecture about how important improving her reading skills will be for the upcoming state mandated test, you remembered that your little girl has already spent 7 hours of the day in school cramming facts and another hour or so doing homework in between the hustle and bustle of activities after school. So you remind yourself that tomorrow is another day to visit libraries and  bookstores, and another chance to pick kid-friendly books off the shelves that might – just might – captivate her interest and eventually enable her future academic success.

And these are the struggles of a fairly bright child in a middle class family with two educated parents and superb teachers in an exemplary rated public school. How hard then must it be for the kids who grow up in poverty or abusive and neglectful environments in school areas where the atmosphere is anything but conducive to learning?

Up until recently it was thought that school results are primarily an effect of intelligence and cognitive skills. Expectant mothers would play Mozart for their growing bellies and pull out Little Einstein flashcards for their infants to gaze at, as if their new world wasn’t interesting enough. Through early academic drills and preschool academic tests brains were molded and promising prodigies nurtured. The should count by age two and read by age five, and any minor delay on the Piaget’s developmental scale would strike panic attacks in their parents. If you listen closely you may hear the desperate shrill in mommy’s voice as she sticks three bright colored letters from the bath tub alphabet on the tub wall where the two-year-old is bathing. “C-C-C-AT. You see? CAT! Meow…” she repeats for the umpteenth time to a confused child who seems much more interested in folding over the foam letters and putting them into her mouth like a beak. Quack, quack. If you haven’t guessed it already, I’m confessing to some of my own maternal neuroses here, but there are a lot of parents like me out there.

So maybe as an effort to quiet down my inner helicopter mom I’ve been somewhat swayed by Steven Pinker lately and the idea that talents and brain capacity is hard-wired by the DNA. Yet I’ve been yearning for someone to substantiate the more palatable and probably more political correct idea that intelligence responds to the efforts you put in and the attitudes you carry towards your own learning capability rather than by natural chance which undeniably smells a little bit like Social Darwinism. That’s why I couldn’t wait to pick up Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed. Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough makes the argument that other traits than intelligence are as good, if not more, predictive indicators of future success. Pointing to scientific studies as well as stories outlining the internal transformations that make at-risk kids succeed, you end up at least a bit more convinced that you can help your children more by teaching character, or grit, than by drilling academics.

So what has that to do with generations? I wanted to include this book in this blog because I have come across a lot of literature and ideas lately that makes me wonder if we are moving away from this cognitive hypothesis, Baby Einstein, school-test type of paradigm of the Baby Boomers to a meme that appeals more to the parents and educators who are rooted in Generation X.

Grit. When I hear that word I think of a rugged cowboy character swaggering across a dusty, arid landscape while clenching together a blood dripping gunshot wound with his hand, unrevealed by his stoic facial expression. A tough, cynical, persevering character who almost masochistically romanticizes the grueling road he had to trod towards his destination nearly as much as the destination itself. A character who’s not afraid to tell you to your face when you fail. Not not embarrass or antagonize you, but because there is so much wisdom in failure that he thinks no failure should be wasted. Yes, I can totally see why fostering “grit” would be close to the heart of nomad parents, like Generation X.

But Tough, despite his name, doesn’t really come across as the conservative, tough love, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps type of guy who ends up serving his readers trite moralizations about the waning character of American youth. If he did I’d probably fall off after the second chapter. The character – or grit- that he talks about is rather a value free quantity, more like: “How are you going to not lose the next game of chess?”

But despite all that grit talk, a great part of the book endorses a seemingly contrary idea: that intense nurturing the first year or two is critical for building the “biological infrastructure” that successful character develops from. Or in my simplistic and naive interpretation, to keep the child’s endocrine system calm enough that it doesn’t get stuck in a constant fight or flight mode, which of course is not very conducive to intellectual enrichment. And hence Tough is also able to reach out to attachment parents who are also widely represented by Generation X. Tough’s idea is that while children need close attachment during the first couple of years, to learn grit they need space to fall and get bruised a few times when they grow a little older.

So how will the Homelanders be able to develop these character traits in a system where students are run frazzled with performance tests and helicoptered by mom and dad to the point of risk aversiveness? Will colleges adopt the idea that how their applicants prepared for college might be just as important to their future performances as what GPA and SAT scores they achieved in high school?

I think as the challenges in the labor market continues (unemployment combined with wrong skill set for many new jobs), the education system will slowly respond by installing more problem focused, higher order thinking and curiosity driven learning styles. This change in education is necessary because these skills have direct effect on the level of innovation and entrepreneurialism in the country. This learning style not only fosters, but requires grit and curiosity. It’s not something you can just cram in before a big test and forget two days later. Secondly, I think the push towards character and curiosity driven learning models will come from a generation of parents who are tired of the race to nowhere and from overprotected children who are tired of having everything scheduled for them. Thirdly, character development seems the most decisive factor for the success of disadvantaged children, and the character oriented approach focuses more on treating the cause than the symptoms. In other words, you can’t teach character unless you target the pediatric and psychological obstacles in their home environment first. Not a bad objective in an economy where 1/4 of the child population lives in poverty.

So this is where as a parent I need to learn to refocus. Resisting to count my daughter’s “words per minutes” or the number of half-read chapter books she lost interest in, as a mother I must look at the motivation and volition she brings to the table instead. And since I am pretty happy with what I see after all, maybe I can finally tell those night trolls goodbye.

Image: Amazon


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