At a recent dinner party, I had a chat with Carrie Lupoli, a US-based parenting and education consultant, about child-rearing practices and beliefs.
While we are familiar with EQ, popularized by the famous “marshmallow tests” conducted on children decades ago, not many people know about the “hidden power of character,” popularized by Paul Tough in his New York Times best seller “How Children Succeed”.
I was very intrigued by the idea of particular character traits a parent could develop in a child to attain success.
The book is an interesting read though not quite what I expected. At times, it reads like a science textbook, with scientific terms such as “hypothalamic – pituitary – adrenal” (our body’s stress regulating system) or Allostatic Load (the long term effects of stress on a person).
Even if it says that success is rooted in character, a third of the book is dedicated to the biological processes and chemical effects that happen in a child’s developing brain and how certain experiences make or break a person’s capacity to handle stress and, eventually, life’s challenges.
The book cites case studies from scientific studies conducted on mice to those conducted on children from less fortunate families, and how they succeed or fail.
Based on the research of doctors and scholars, Paul Tough concludes that the more stressful a childhood is, the more chances the child will grow up with emotional trauma, which could lead to negative behavior and lack of necessary character traits for success.
Stress is caused by situations that involve violence, abuse (emotional, sexual, physical, etc…) poverty, illnesses and death, among others.
However, it would seem that a mother or primary care giver’s nurturing presence, especially in times of stress, can help prevent negative effects.
The book focuses on seven key characteristics many successful people display. The author debunks the theory on the infallibility of IQ, citing a study where a group of children took an IQ test. They were grouped into three—low, medium and high. They were then made to take the test again, but this time, promised an M&M for each correct answer.
Surprisingly, those in the low IQ category suddenly scored high enough to reach the medium range, while some of those in the medium category jumped to the high IQ range.
This paves the way for his theory that most of what we do, including how intelligent we seem to be and how successful we can be, is based on our character that is molded in life, and not something we are born with.
Moral character vs performance character
The author distinguishes between moral character and performance character.
While moral character deals mainly with one’s “goodness,” performance character focuses on how a person acts and reacts to challenges in life.
The seven characteristics are:
2. Self control
4. Social intelligence
Grit is the ability of a person to persist in a challenge or task, doing everything necessary to achieve the desired end result. Of course, as with anything in life, moderation is key, as too much of any characteristic can easily backfire on a person.
For instance, someone with too much grit may lead to obsession and may make a person lose the ability to empathize with those around him.
Self-control is the ability of a person to resist short-term gains for long-term goals, whether these goals are concrete, such as a trophy, or something abstract such as success in a yet unknown field.
Strangely enough, the other key characteristics are glossed over.
However, looking at some of the more successful members of society will show us that indeed, they seem to possess these key characteristics in abundance.
Many pioneers of industry and business followed their curiosity and went beyond their comfort zone.
Social intelligence, or the ability to get along with others and make them feel at ease, is an important characteristic for leaders in government and private sector, especially if one wishes to develop loyalty.
A small portion of the book tackles the other end of the spectrum and touches on the lives of children of affluent families. These are children to whom success is served on a silver platter.
Ironically, in the quest of affluent parents to provide their child with everything they need to succeed, they inevitably prevent them from experiencing the very things they need to succeed.
Paul Tough argues that the risk of failure, the necessity to persevere to fight hunger, is what pushes children and eventually, adults, to succeed.
But in the case of many children from well-off families, parents create a “safety net drawn so tight, it’s a harness” and knowing that they will always be saved, lulls these children into complacency. While they don’t fail they also just coast along. They don’t go beyond their comfort zone to achieve greatness.