Most parents- make that most people- in and out of the Church assume that a child’s success in life stems from the acquisition of particular intellectual skills, the sort of skills that tests can measure. We assume the veracity of what NY Times writer Paul Tough calls ‘the cognitive hypothesis.’ It’s this assumption that guides parents (like me, admittedly) to teach their children letter, number and pattern recognition at earlier and earlier ages. We think these skills lead to success; therefore, we want our children to have an advantage by having them master them as early as possible.
But what if these intellectual skills were not a predictor (or producer) of future success?
According to Tough in his new book, How Children Succeed, new studies show they are not good indicators of a child’s future. Instead attributes like persistence, self-control, curiosity, grit and self-confidence are more important to a child’s future success. In other words, new studies show what St Thomas Aquinas long ago taught the Church, that character is more important to a one’s future than brain power.
And maybe that sounds obvious to you but just compare the intensity with which parents focus on inculcating children with cognitive skills versus the usual lukewarm zeal those same parents give to immersing their children in the stories and traditions of the faith. Most of us are helicopter parents when it comes to our children’s education but we treat Sunday School as babysitting.
How do children acquire character?
Tough summarizes: ‘Character is created by encountering and overcoming failure.’
This is the point at which his argument becomes not only interesting but indicting.
Tough finds that there are two groups of children whose success suffers because character requires the experience of and triumph over failure: rich kids and poor kids.
Children of the affluent, by enjoying sheltered lives, tend to be protected from situations in which they experience failure. Wanting to nurture self-esteem, affluent parents inadvertently sacrifice their children’s character.
Meanwhile, children in poverty experience the inverse situation. Failure is omnipresent in their lives. No helicopter parent can shield them from it. Instead poor children too often do not have a reasonable chance at overcoming failure. It’s the overcoming not just the experiencing of failure that yields character.
So then Tough’s book points out a little mentioned by product of our ever-widening income inequality- that both rich and poor suffer from it.
We tend to think of economics in political or neutral terms only, but Tough’s book about children’s success points out what the Church has always taught about wealth, that it involves our character too. And by refusing to acknowledge that, perhaps because its too politically uncomfortable, its our children, on both sides of the gap, that suffer.