Over the years, my 92-year-old-mom has often remarked regretfully that she wished she had known more about child development when she raised my three siblings and me. (Always makes me wonder where she thinks she went wrong with me!)
But now that I’m a mom of three and a “gram” of 10, I can identify. Loving parents—especially those who follow Christ—pray earnestly for their children’s development and well-being. And, yes, we try our hardest to help our kids to grow into happy, faith-full, and successful adults ready to be transforming agents in our communities.
Perhaps that’s why I immediately read the recent New York Times bestseller How Children Succeed after receiving a copy from my son. Try Googling “raising successful children” and you’ll find an endless list of titles on the subject, each with its own definition of success and holding out the promise of a helpful answer—often in five or six easy steps. But the subtitle of this book by Paul Tough, a respected writer about education, child development, and poverty, made me want to read more: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.
In addition to caring about my own children, my work as an early childhood educator has given me a soft heart for kids who grow up in settings that fail to encourage growth or offer quality education. Reflecting on my early teaching days (before I had kids of my own!) when I spent a great deal of time with parents and preschoolers from inner-city Ypsilanti, Mich., I remember being deeply impressed by the sense of commitment and earnest desire on the part of those parents that their kids become successful adults. Achieving academically became their dream—despite the poor track record public schools have in helping kids break the cycle of poverty.
Based on current research into the question “Why do some kids succeed while others fail?” Tough’s book refutes the common assumption that success in life equates to cognitive achievement. Rather, after carefully examining several studies and listening to many stories of children who “made it” despite the odds against them, he says that success has far more to do with non-cognitive skills and traits like self-control, curiosity, persistence, gratitude, and sheer grit.
What a freeing thought for parents—freeing but challenging too. Though we have neither the control over the IQs we pass along to our children nor, in many cases, the financial means to send them to expensive preschools or prep schools, we do have the means (and the biblical mandate) to foster in our children those non-cognitive traits that will lay a foundation for becoming successful adults.
From the moment they’re born, we are our children’s models, their mentors, their shapers, their shepherds. We pray them through the ups and downs of childhood and the teen years—and we intentionally influence their unfolding personalities and character.
Interestingly, Tough suggests that kids growing up in poverty often have the advantage over children in affluent families in this regard because they learn to grow from failure rather than being rescued from it by their “hovering” parents.
Knowing we have such influence over our kids’ character makes me feel hopeful for my own children who have turned into parents. And for caring parents everywhere, both poor and affluent, who seek to raise successful children. And for the church, where our children and teens learn from people of faith what it means to live, grow, and serve.
Now I’m going to lend Tough’s book to my mom!