by Mina Simhai

The essential thing is not knowledge, but character. —Joseph Le Conte

I’m a parent. The question of how children succeed is one that sometimes keeps me up at night. Yet sometimes we parents (well, me anyway) get stuck in a false dichotomy. The question really isn’t piano vs. tae kwon do lessons—it runs deeper. What skills do my kids need so they can make and keep friends, and create meaning and happiness in their lives? And, once we figure out what those skills are, how do we best teach them to our kids?

Lucky for us, journalist Paul Tough dives deeply into these questions in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. His conclusion? Character traits such as conscientiousness, grit, perseverance, optimism, and resilience matter far more than intelligence. What’s more, these character qualities can be learned, and building them can help close the education gap between rich and poor children. Drawing on real-world success stories, from inner cities to fancy private schools, and interviews with everyone from grit expert Angela Duckworth to chess champions and innovative educators, Tough identifies the skills and life lessons that help kids succeed.

How to Fail
There’s no escaping one painful lesson: Our kids need to learn how to fail. It’s no wonder so many young people struggle with this; it’s hard for most adults, too. Rather than sheltering our kids and creating “safe” environments with minimal risk of failure, we would do well to encourage them to “look deeply at their own mistakes, examine why they had made them, and think hard about what they might have done differently,” Tough suggests. Turns out that it matters a lot whether our kids melt down and throw the art project on the floor when it doesn’t meet their expectations, or sit back down and rework it. Kids who learn to fail—the ones who can turn the drawing of a house into a car if that’s what the assignment requires—are much more likely to take risks, to keep practicing and trying, to build grit, and to lean into challenges rather than running away from them. These are the skills that ultimately lead to success.

How to Build Character
Tough’s inquiry reveals that kids do better when they have strong character. But what does character mean? In the words of Duckworth, a well-respected positive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, “habit and character are essentially the same thing.” Do we have habits of kindness, or are we short-tempered? Are children in the habit of writing down their homework assignments and completing them each night before watching TV or hanging out with friends? Duckworth’s definition of character takes morality out of the equation. It’s not about “good” kids and “bad” kids, just good habits and bad habits. Kids understand it when you put it this way, because they know that habits might be hard to change, but they’re not impossible to change. To help kids succeed, educators and parents can help them cultivate good habits, which is exactly what many of the educators featured in How Children Succeed do.

David Levin, co-founder of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter schools, noticed that, as his students finished high school and went on to college, the ones who persevered in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP. “Instead, they seemed to be the ones who possessed certain other gifts, skills like optimism and resilience and social agility. They were the students who were able to recover from bad grades and resolve to do better next time; who could bounce back from unhappy breakups or fights with their parents; who could persuade professors to give them extra help after class; who could resist the urge to go out to the movies and instead stay home and study.” Levin is describing grit, perseverance, and resilience. These kids remained focused on their tasks despite the challenges and distractions.

Grit is “a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.” According to Duckworth’s research, grit is an excellent predictor of whether freshman cadets at West Point will graduate and also of success at the National Spelling Bee. The passion for a single mission is what sets grit apart from self-discipline. Having grit allows children (and adults) to channel their self-discipline toward important goals. Duckworth’s research shows that a high level of grit is a more important factor than a high level of intelligence in school and professional success.

We can help kids develop grit by letting them play and explore enough to find something they’re interested in. Chances are, they will not have a passionate commitment to activities we select for them or what their school mandates. Passion comes from intrinsic motivation: What is it they yearn to do? Once they discover that, we let them run with it—helping them find teachers, observing and pointing out their progress, and priming their environment for practice and inspiration.

If you ask my six-year-old daughter what she wants to be when she grows up, she will tell you a ballerina. Yet, when it comes time for her weekly ballet class, she often grumbles and wants to skip it. Helping her develop grit means not letting her off the hook. She has the bigger goal of becoming a ballerina, and ballerinas are built through regular practice. So, each week, she attends ballet class. She is learning how to arabesque, but, far more important, she is learning these life lessons:

  • She finishes what she starts.
  • With consistent practice, she improves.
  • When she identifies a goal, she works towards it each week.

As she grows up, the character she is building will serve her well—whether she decides to be a ballerina or a biologist.

What if we focused less on test scores and more on character?

Mina Simhai earned her Certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute, and served as a teaching assistant for CiPP4. She is also a recovering lawyer, yoga teacher and mother. Her latest project is bringing the tools of positive psychology to lawyers and others in the DC area and across the country. Her top strengths are judgment, love of learning, curiosity, love, and appreciation of beauty. Mina is an avid reader and looks forward to launching the WBI Book Club with you.