There’s fascinating new research showing us something about where ‘grit’ comes from. ‘Why do some children who grow up in poverty do well, while others struggle?’ Alix Spiegel asks in this article. She answers the question with some fascinating new research showing how the quality of an infant’s attachment to her mother makes an enormous difference to sensitive kids, and that this difference grows over time.
Some infants are a lot more sensitive to the environment than others. These sensitive babies are the kids at highest risk of behavioural problems as they get older. Sensitive babies in this research who showed an insecure attachment to their mothers in infancy (i.e., not soothed by the mother’s presence, not happy to see mother after a separation) are the ones who grew into troubled children with the most severe behavioural problems.
Fascinatingly, though, the sensitive babies who showed secure attachments to their mothers in infancy were the ones who grew into the best kids, with the lowest number of problem behaviours.
(The children with low set points [an indicator of less sensitivity to the environment] were not as good as the best or as bad as the worst, no matter their parenting.)
And perhaps most interestingly, Spiegel writes that ‘The behavior of the children with high set points and secure attachments to their mothers compared favorably with the behavior of children whose environments were often much easier.’ The kids who were growing up in high-risk poverty who were sensitive to the environment (‘high set points’) and who experienced secure attachment to their mothers, actually did better than kids growing up with a lot more advantages.
Thank you to Ben Peterson at Newsana–http://www.newsana.com/— for bringing this to my attention!
For those interested in following this farther and deeper, you can go to the source:
Poverty, Problem Behavior, and Promise: Differential Susceptibility Among Infants Reared in Poverty, by Elisabeth Conradt, Jeffrey Measelle, and Jennifer C. Ablow http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/01/29/0956797612457381
You might also be interested in Dan Keating’s work– http://books.google.com/books/about/Nature_and_Nurture_in_Early_Child_Develo.html?id=0hdB63OT_RYC
or Stephen Suomi’s fascinating studies with cross-fostering monkeys, discussed by Dan Keating in The Nature and Nurture of Early Child Development, and elsewhere–
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York; October, 2012.
There’s a good reason that everyone is talking about this book. It’s an unflinchingly honest look at the failings of a society where too many children are growing up without the tools they need to create meaningful and fulfilling lives for themselves. As Tough writes, ‘The biggest obstacles to academic success that poor children, especially very poor children, often face [are] a home and a community that create high levels of stress, and the absence of a secure relationship with a caregiver that would allow a child to manage that stress.’ (p. 195)
And it’s not just poor kids who have problems due to high levels of stress and insecure relationships with their parents. Tough also reviews research on kids who grow up in affluent families and communities, and offers some startling conclusions. Simply put, rich kids have many of the same problems as those experienced by poor kids. Both groups are more likely than middle class kids to experience low levels of maternal attachment, high levels of parental criticism, and minimal afterschool supervision. Furthermore, wealthy kids have higher levels of anxiety and depression, especially in adolescence. Reviewing the findings, Tough writes, ‘The emotional disconnection that existed between many affluent parents and their children often meant that the parents were unusually indulgent of their children’s bad behavior.’ (p. 83)
In spite of Tough’s dire analyses of how bad things are for far too many children in far too many communities, How Children Succeed is one of the most encouraging books I have read on this topic. He weaves thoughtful stories of real children, teenagers, and adults into current research findings on child development and resiliency, coming up with recommendations that promise to transform society if we pay attention to them.
He describes research on executive function—emotional and cognitive self-regulation, which affects attention, impulsivity, self-soothing, anger management and other skills involved in coping with stress and challenge. These are skills that children growing up in poverty are a lot less likely to have. ‘The reason researchers who care about the gap between rich and poor are so excited about executive function,’ he writes, ‘is that these skills are not only highly predictive of success; they are also quite malleable, much more so than other cognitive skills…If we can improve a child’s environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase his prospects for success in a particularly efficient way.’ (p. 21)
Environmental risks like family turmoil, chaos, and crowding have a big impact on measures of children’s stress, but only when mothers are inattentive or unresponsive: ‘High quality mothering, in other words, can act as a powerful buffer against the damage that adversity inflicts on a child’s stress-response system…Good parenting—being helpful and attentive in a game of Jenga—can make a profound difference for a child’s future prospects.’ (p. 32) Tough concludes that parents’ responding sensitively to infants’ cues has a long-lasting effect on children’s prospects, leading them to be more curious, self-reliant, self-confident, calm, and better able to deal with obstacles.
Although ‘character’ means different things to different people, there are several qualities that can be thought of collectively as ‘character’ that have been shown both to be important to success and well-being, and also teachable: bravery, fairness, integrity, humour, zest, appreciation of beauty, social intelligence, kindness, and gratitude. Tough reviews successful attempts to teach these qualities—not as ways to impose middle class ideas of morality, but rather as ways for all kids to experience personal growth, achievement, and fulfillment.
Parental warmth and nurturance are the most important factors leading to infants and young children thriving. Later on, as children enter adolescence, one person who takes them seriously, believes in their abilities, and challenges them consistently to improve themselves, can make all the difference.
Tough concludes that ‘The most reliable way to produce an adult who is brave and curious and kind and prudent is to ensure that when he is an infant, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functions well… First, as much as possible, you protect him from serious trauma and chronic stress; then, even more important, you provide him with a secure, nurturing relationship with at least one parent and ideally two.’ (p. 182)
As a child gets older, Tough continues, he needs ‘more than love and hugs. He also need[s] discipline, rules, limits, someone to say no. And what he need[s] more than anything is some child-size adversity, a chance to fall down and get back up on his own, without help.’ (p. 183) Children need support in learning how to manage failure, and in order to do that, they need to experience failures they can cope with. This is what Carol Dweck writes about in Mindset: kids need to learn how to see failures and setbacks as opportunities to learn.
It’s also, in some ways, what Amy Chua writes about in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. An important difference between Tough’s recommendations and Chua’s description of her own parenting is that Tough emphasizes the importance of support, warmth, security, and nurturing. I think their goals are probably similar, though, that kids build their self-confidence on a solid foundation of achievement rather than the shifting sands of other people’s opinions or attention.
Tough’s recommendations for going forward are radical, but doable. He says we need a coordinated system that might start with comprehensive pediatric wellness centers like Nadine Burke Harris has established in Bayview-Hunters Point, in San Francisco. We might continue with parenting interventions that help parents establish secure connections with their infants. We might implement early childhood education programs that have shown dramatic positive results. We also need to provide supports at school and outside of school for kids as they move into adolescence, as well as the adults in their lives. Science demonstrates that society can make a difference to kids’ outcomes. This book provides a call to action for thinking about how to do that.
There are a lot of reasons people are feeling more stressed right now than usual–Hurricane Sandy, economic worries, political uncertainty, and also (in the northern half of the northern hemisphere) the fact that it’s November and the light is decreasing every day.
If you’re a parent–specially of a small child–it becomes even more important to manage that stress well. Little ones absorb our feelings and worry when we worry. Here are five great ideas for coping, and reducing the likelihood of the added stress burden leading to further problems:
Posted in attunement, confronting adversity, coping and resilience, gratitude, happiness, kids' stress, mommy mind-meld, parents, parents' stress, resilience, self-regulation, troubled times | Leave a Comment »
A thought-provoking article on the importance of real–not electronic–community and connection. Also perhaps a cautionary tale about the isolation that electronic connectivity brings — fascinating! This suggests a need to rethink the ways we’re connecting with our friends and neighbours–open the doors, let the children out, ask people in!
The idea of ‘grit’ is being talked about a lot these days, inspired in big part by Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Power of Character. I agree that grit is too often ignored and that it’s hugely important–but it’s also important to remember that grit rarely leads to success unless it’s accompanied by some help and support along the way.
In this article, ‘Success comes from grit–and plenty of helping hands along the way’, Emily Hanford talks about the importance of social success in overcoming the challenges of poverty. Studying graduates of the YES Prep charter school network in Houston (founded in order to help poor and minority kids graduate from college), she wrote, ‘YES data shows that the students most likely to complete college go to schools where there are good support services and often a concerted effort to encourage and retain poor and minority students.’
Thank you to Annie Murphy Paul for posting this article on her blog.
December 3, 2011
We come back to a theme we’re encountering a lot these days: parents – stressed by the demands and insecurities they’re experiencing in their own lives— wonder how they can ensure their children will have the intelligence edge they’ll need in this fast-paced and rapidly-changing world. What can parents do to support their children’s ability to cope successfully with—and even welcome— the challenges they will inevitably encounter?
So much is changing so rapidly in the world right now, and in individual people’s lives. Very few of us feel as confident about the future as we once did, and when so little seems stable and predictable, it is easy to become overwhelmed by worries. Parents I talk to are concerned about the stresses in their own lives, and have questions like these about raising their children:
How can I make sure my children aren’t damaged by the sex and violence that surrounds them–in advertising, computer games, music, cartoons, television, and more?
Is it okay if my child has no interest in reading?
I’m feeling uncertain about my own job. How can I possibly prepare my child to earn a living one day?
The bottom line for these and many other questions concerns how parents can best prepare their children to thrive in a fast-paced and rapidly-changing world.
The answer to most of these questions is surprisingly simple, although not always easy to implement. The single best way to give children an intelligence edge—a well-developed ability to cope successfully with and even welcome the challenges they will inevitably encounter –is to spend time with them.
Listen patiently and respectfully to their concerns. Discuss your ideas and theirs, and do some problem-solving together. Convey a confidence in their ability to figure things out—with your help, as needed, and only in those areas where they have some reasonable age-appropriate control over the situation. Be present to their fears, their hopes, their worries. Help them see that managing change and meeting challenges can feel good.
There is more than this to being a good parent, of course, including supporting your children in developing habits of mind like perseverance, hard work, critical thinking, creativity, and flexibility; and in having character traits like honesty, kindness, loyalty, and integrity. Children need lots more than just being listened to — love, for example, and guidance, patience, social interaction, physical play, sensory stimulation, and intellectual challenge.
Joanne Foster and I discuss all these important things at length in Raising Smarter Kids, but if given the time and opportunity to make only one suggestion to a worried parent, it is almost always about the intelligence edge their children will have if they have someone with whom to communicate openly—someone who they can trust in order to share their perspectives and ideas. And, that is truer today than ever.
When the world is rushing along madly, children need to feel a sense of sanctuary, attention, and respect at home.
Posted in confronting adversity, creativity, critical thinking, decision making, habits of mind, hard work, impact of change on parents, intellectual challenge, intelligence, intelligence edge, kids' stress, listen to kids, parents, parents' examples, parents' stress, play, problem-solving, resilience, sensory stimulation, social support, time of change, trust | Leave a Comment »
Although wisdom is often associated with later adulthood, its seeds are planted in childhood. The most important thing that parents can do to support the development of wisdom in their children is to model these attributes in their own lives. That means taking others’ needs into account, as well as one’s own, and doing that explicitly, sharing the reasoning processes with children.
“Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of wisdom in coping successfully with turbulent times, and realising that wisdom is as important for children as it is for adults. Although it is often associated with later adulthood, the seeds of wisdom are planted in childhood. More than ever, now is a time for parents and teachers to help children learn to make calm, reasoned sense of what’s happening around them, and to make wise decisions in their lives. This is always true, of course, but the urgency of thinking and behaving wisely is accentuated in times of stress.
Think, for example, about the British campaign asking citizens to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ during the bombing raids of the second world war. This was an appeal to people’s wisdom, and the collective ability of the British population to respond positively to this message was almost certainly a factor in the outcome of the war.
Practically speaking, what can parents do to support the development of wisdom in their children? Because wisdom is an abstract idea like love or compassion, it’s a good idea to start with what it looks like in practice: ‘Wise people do not look out just for their own interests, nor do they ignore these interests. Rather, they skillfully balance interests of varying kinds, including their own, and [others’]…Wise individuals realize that what may appear to be a prudent course of action in the short term does not necessarily appear so over the long term.’ (from Explorations in Giftedness (2011), by Robert Sternberg, Linda Jarvin, and Elena Grigorenko)
So, we’re back to the question that motivated this blog: how can parents support the development of wisdom in their children? The quote at the top of the blog from Martin Luther King provides a clue: wisdom requires well-developed thinking skills (or intelligence), as well as a strongly developed character. I have addressed elsewhere the ways that parents and teachers can support the development of their children’s intelligence, and focus here on the ‘character’ component of wisdom. This is where Sternberg’s description comes in, suggesting that wisdom includes a focus on skillfully balancing interests of varying kinds, including one’s own as well as others’; and an understanding that one needs to consider the longer term, as well as immediate and short term, effects of a decision or action.
The most important thing that parents can do to support the development of wisdom and character in their children is to model these attributes in their own lives, sharing the reasoning processes with children, as they become able to understand some of the factors that are involved. ‘Others’ here is broadly inclusive, from immediate family members, out through extended family and friendship networks, and community, national, and global interests. That means, for example, thinking about the environmental effects of one’s actions. It means treating others the way one would like to be treated, and also being as good to oneself as one is to others. It means making a habit of asking, ‘What would happen if everyone behaved as I do?’
Modeling wisdom also means thinking about the long term consequences of any behaviour or action, as well as possible immediate and short-term consequences. It might be alright to eat one more chocolate bar right now, but in the longer term, too many decisions like that will prove unwise. The family might be able to afford an expensive holiday this year, but perhaps that will mean depleting resources, and having trouble if the roof starts leaking or the car needs repairs. Sometimes a holiday is badly needed—whether for physical or emotional or family-building reasons –and is the best possible way to spend the family savings. Knowing when it’s a good idea to push the limits, and when it’s a good time to conserve, is where wisdom comes in.
Second to modeling wise decision-making, the most important thing that parents can do is include their children in decision-making processes, as appropriate to the child’s age and abilities. This is best if it starts small and personal – should Maria do her homework when she gets home from school, for example, or can she wait until after dinner? By the time a child becomes a teenager, decisions are getting more complex and have bigger consequences, so it’s great if some wisdom has already been acquired. Because children of eleven through fourteen are going through extraordinary internal and external changes, they go through a stage when they may appear to have lost any wisdom they’d already gained, so it’s important that they’ve already consolidated some basics of wise decision-making before that.
Raising kids who are not only smart, but who are also wise enough to make the decisions that will lead to a sense of fulfillment and happiness across the life span, is a serious challenge faced by all parents. This is the challenge that Joanne Foster and I address in our work together, most explicitly in Raising Smarter Kids. We write there about what we think parents’ ultimate goals for their children should be. This includes a feeling of well-being, and, ideally, happiness. Integrity. The recognition that change and challenge can be good. The ability to welcome adversity, and to cultivate resilience in the face of hardship. The ability to think, communicate, and act coherently, responsibly, creatively, and decisively. A collaborative spirit. Ample capacity for fun and relaxation. And, a lifelong love of learning, fueled by a calm, self-assured motivation and drive. Wisdom, in other words.
As with creativity and intelligence, parents have a much larger role in their children acquiring wisdom than many realize. Parents can make a difference by providing the kinds of environments, challenges, role models, and social supports that increase the likelihood of their children making wise decisions, both in the short term, and in the longer term.
Posted in character, collaboration parents and teachers, community, confronting adversity, creativity, decision making, habits of mind, happiness, intelligence, parents, parents' examples, resilience, social change, social responsibility, social support, social turmoil, teenagers, time of change, troubled times, wisdom, wisdom in children | Leave a Comment »
August 14, 2011
Late this week, across England, brigades of mostly young people gathered, carrying brooms, in areas where looting had destroyed their neighbours’ shops and homes over the previous few days. The broom brigade came together in the same way that the gangs of looters had come together with baseball bats a few days earlier, using social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook, to let people know what was happening, and encourage them to get involved.
There’s been a lot of talk in the wake of the looting about the role of parents – should parents be held accountable for their children’s antisocial actions? Should parents be evicted from their community-subsidised housing if their teenagers set fire to a shop, or steal from one?
This turmoil across England, and the ensuing community-minded clean-ups, echo socially disruptive and cohesive activities happening around the world, in the Arab Spring, in China, and elsewhere. They provide an opportunity for parents to think about the values they’re living out themselves, and what they’re teaching their children about a person’s roles, rights, and responsibilities in society. Parents can take this chance to affirm the importance of each of us taking an active part in investing in creating a civil society, especially in times of stress and turmoil.
In response to many requests from parents for advice on how to support their children through troubled times, Joanne and I wrote an article several years ago that has been reprinted several times, in newsletters and other publications around the world, called ‘Troubling Times: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Understand and Confront Adversity.’ In it, we recommend that parents help their children see their own roles in making the world a better place, one manageable step at a time. In short, we recommend that parents show their children by their own example how much more powerful is the broom than the baseball bat.
Posted in adolescence, civil society, community, confronting adversity, parents, parents' accountability, parents' examples, social change, social media, social responsibility, social turmoil, teenagers, time of change, troubled times | Leave a Comment »