How Children Succeed?

This post is about my reflections on the book How Children Succeed which I recently read.

What matters most in a child’s development for them to succeed in life?

We mostly think that intelligent and smart people succeed, i.e success comes to those who score highest in school, college or competitive exams like SAT, GMAT etc. But in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter more for success are have to do with the character.

In a child’s development, what matters most is not how much information we can stuff into his/her brain in the first few years. But, instead is whether we are able to help him/her develop a very different set of qualities like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Infact, possessing these qualities helps a child to get high scores in exams consistently than intelligence alone.

Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.

Let’s delve into some of these characters.

Grit: Grit is disposition to pursue long term goals with passion and perserverance. Grit is a noncognitive personality trait based on someone’s ability to persevere despite the presence of many challenges and obstacles to achieve a given goal. It is basically an attitude—a personal creed that you can conquer anything if you just put your mind and body to it.

Gritty people tend to stick to their goals despite numerous setbacks and failures. They are the world-class athletes, the entrepreneur who turned a basement operation into a multi-million dollar business, the benevolent philanthropist who donates all his life’s earnings to help the poor, the inventor whose invention saved countless lives. The grittiest people are the people that change the world.

I’d bet that there isn’t a single highly successful person who hasn’t depended on grit - says Angela Duckworth, the foremost researcher on the field of grit study.

Delayed Gratification: Delayed Gratification the ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward. Generally, delayed gratification is associated with resisting a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later.

Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with - Peck, M. Scott, The Road Less traveled

For eg. A student will able to wake up early in the morning regularly to study for an exam to get a better job later, if he can sacrifice sleep (instant gratification) for a better job that will come after many years (delayed gratification).

Psychological researchers at Standford conducted marshmallow experiment to study delayed gratification and found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.

Conscientiousness: Conscientiousness is the personality trait of being thorough, careful, or vigilant. Conscientiousness implies a desire to do a task well. Conscientious people tend to be super organized, responsible, and plan ahead. It is related to the way in which people control, regulate, and direct their impulses. Conscientious people also like to follow rules and norms and avoid risks. Psychologists classify conscientiousness is one of the Big five personality traits.

People high in conscientiousness get better grades in high school and college; they commit fewer crimes; and they stay married longer. - Brent Roberts psychologist, University of Illinois.

Curiosity: Curiosity is an eagerness to explore and discover new things. It is closely linked openness trait of Big five personality traits, open-mindedness aids exploring a wide range of relevant information when trying to draw a conclusion, including information that challenges our own initial assumptions.

Curious people actively look for challenges that will stretch them, whether that involves making new friendships, learning new skills. They have ability to embrace new ideas and therefore they will be creative.

Curiosity is a lens through which you view everything around you. Without it,there are no adventures to be had, With it, there are enough for a million times - Sean Patrick , Awakening your inner genius

Optimism: Optimistic child believes that his or her effort will be rewarding and will improve their future.

People with an optimistic explanatory style interpret adversity as being local and temporary (i.e., “It’s not that bad, and it will get better.”) while those with a pessimistic explanatory style see these events as more global and permanent (i.e., “It’s really bad, and it’s never going to change.”). Their beliefs then directly affect their actions; the ones who believe the latter statement sink into helplessness and stop trying, while the ones who believe the former are spurred on to higher performance - Shawn Achor, Happiness Advantage book.

Countless studies have been conducted on optimism, and the vast majority of them support the same conclusions: Optimism can have profound effects on a person’s physical health. The mere act of expecting positive outcomes and being hopeful can boost a person’s immune system, protect against harmful behaviors, prevent chronic disease, and help people cope following troubling news.

What can we do to make our kids successful?

Research suggests that these characters are cultivated in child by environment in which they grew up. So as a parent, all of us as a society - can do lot to influence development of these character strengths in children. Also it’s easy to develop these skills very early in child’s life and it becomes harder he or she grows into adult. It doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to change character. Children need to adopt a growth mindset and believe character is malleable. If we teach them to pay attention to character, then their character will transform.

We will face, as all parents do, between our urge to provide everything for our child, to protect him from all harm, and our knowledge that if we really want him to succeed, we need to first let him fail. Or more precisely, we need to help him learn to manage failure. It is important for them to learn how to deal with failures and learn from your own failures.

“We are all born with boundless curiosity, but as we grow older, a battle springs up between anxious mind and the curious spirit” - says Todd Kashdan of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Our instinct to explore is tempered by our desire to conform. In our pursuit of a secure and comfortable life, we lose sight of what really drives us. We stop asking, What am I excited by, what am I motivated to pursue?’.

We should encourage kids to listen to their instinct. When kids questions something we should avoid saying like ‘this is how it is’, ‘just accept what I said, don’t ask questions’. We should not embarrass them for asking questions and make sure their curiosity doesn’t diminish.

If a child begins to think pessimistic, the best way to improve possitive attitude is to encourage them start making a daily list of good things in their life. When you write down a list of “three good things” that happened that day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives— things that brought small or large laughs, feelings of accomplishment, a strengthened connection with friend or family, a glimmer of hope for the future. This trains brain to become more skilled at noticing good things and help them turn into optimistic.

If we want our kid to become as someone (say become a doctor), we will keep saying it to them. Eventually child will want to grow into as that person (doctor). But

“When it comes to ambition, it is crucial to distinguish between ‘wanting’ something and ‘choosing’ it.” Decide that you want to become world champion , and you will inevitably fail to put in the necessary hard work. You will not only not become world champion but also have the unpleasant experience of falling short of a desired goal, with all the attendant disappointment and regret. If, however, you choose to become world champion (as Kasparov did at a young age), then you will “reveal your choice through your behavior and your determination. Every action says, ‘This is who I am.’” - Jonathan Rowson, Scottish Chess grand master.

So we should allow kids to choose their ambition, choose who they want to grow into.

References and Further Reading:

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