From 1962 to 1967 researchers selected students with low-income and low-I.Q. parents at the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan and divided them into two groups. One group received a special high-quality education, while the control group used the school’s normal curriculum.
The students that received the high-quality education showed short-term gains in I.Q. but by the third grade, they were again even with the control group. The experiment was seen as failure – until the researchers followed back up with the students later in their lives. The students that received the high-quality education were more likely to graduate high school, more likely to be employed at age 27, and more likely have a salary over $40,000 at age 40. If the gains in I.Q. didn’t stick, then what happened to make the students more successful?
The path to success that has been preached for decades, get good grades, ace the S.A.T., and then get into a good college, is being turned on its head. In his book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough leans on a new generation of educators and researchers to argue that our success as adults is better measured by certain character traits than by our G.P.A. as children. While the gains made by the Perry students in I.Q. eventually petered out, as a side effect they picked up characteristics like determination and motivation that led to their success later in life.
Tough reasons that “non-cognitive” traits like optimism, zest, gratitude, and grit make children (and adults) more likely to succeed. I chatted with him about what that means for our children’s creativity and how we can apply his findings to our working lives as adults.
Our success as adults is better measured by certain character traits than by our G.P.A.
Why focus on children?
My background as a reporter was writing about kids and education. Doing my first book about the Harlem Children’s Zone left me with some questions about how kids succeed. The other thing that happened is my wife and I had our first child three years ago. He was totally my experimental subject.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book was that though an affluent family has more resources at its disposal, money wasn’t a cure-all for producing children with the characteristics you described.
Moderate amounts of adversity are really good for kids. Some kids in poverty are experiencing way too much adversity and that’s damaging them in all sorts of ways. And then we have kids who aren’t experiencing enough, and that’s hurting them as well. I think of it as an “adversity gap.” Negative trauma certainly has a negative impact but on the other hand we have helicopter parents that don’t let our children fail.
How does anyone judge what is the “right” amount of adversity? I’m sure you struggle with this with your own son.
There are these moments during a child’s life where he’s trying to learn something new, and I have to let him do it on his own and pull back, even though I don’t want to. When he falls, it means literally not helping him back up and letting him get up on his own. There are lots of little choices parents make when it comes down to protecting their kids or letting them figure it out for themselves.
Another part of your book q uotes researchers that think our modern school system stifles creativity by creating “excessively contained” children and, eventually, adults.
I don’t totally buy it. I think the evidence is really strong that self-discipline is important for anyone. Being a really creative person without any discipline to direct that creativity is not so good. If kids don’t have self-regulation or self discipline it can lead to all sorts of negative outcomes. But just coloring inside the lines won’t help you succeed. More esoteric character strengths like optimism and zest are things that can be taught and are also predictive of success.
How can people be taught any of these character traits?
I think one thing that all the educators in the book stress is that, in adolescence and early adulthood, just reflecting on these skills and thinking about them as something you can change is an important process in changing them. There’s a psychologist from Columbia in the book, Carol Dweck, who discovered that when kids think they can change their I.Q. they work harder.
Just coloring inside the lines won’t help you succeed.
We think of these character traits as fixed: you’re either outgoing or you’re not. There’s such a thing as temperament, but I think its useful to think of character as something you can change. I think that, in some ways, it’s the only way you can do it. There is no “zest” curriculum out there.
As you wrote the book did you see any examples of kids changing their character?
Not in a way that I’ve seen measured with clear assessment, yet. There is this one organization in the book, OneGoal, that works with kids through high school and during their first year in college to help them succeed. They don’t talk about grit, but they talk about perseverance. So far the results seem really powerful. The cohort I followed has 85% of their kids going on to the second year of college. That’s good for any demographic, especially kids from the South Side of Chicago who are often the first in their families to go to college.
What can your learnings about children teach us as adults?
Thinking of these character strengths as malleable is really powerful. In the past I thought that I was either a good writer or I wasn’t. I thought it was a skill some people just had and that it couldn’t be taught. When kids think they can change their I.Q. they work harder.
Thinking about the non-cognitive side of my trade is huge. Getting up and getting my work done, bouncing back from a bad review, that’s all stuff that I can work on. It’s hard, but when people believe they can change, it’s remarkable what they can do. I don’t want to give the impression that all there is to it, though. The fact that you can just want to change isn’t enough. Anticipating the obstacles and planning for them is also important.
But kids don’t have decades of life experience, it’s easier for them to change. As adults, we have a lot of baggage, even if we know the psychology behind it all.
In lots of ways our brains may be less malleable but there’s lots of resources that we have that kids don’t. We’ve seen the effects of our choices over the years while it’s hard to get a kid to perceive the effects that their actions have on the future. But when you are in your twenties or thirties and beyond, you can make those connections much more clearly.
How About You?
Do you think character traits are malleable?
Sean Blanda is the Associate Editor and Producer of 99U. You can find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.