What Kids Need to Succeed

An Interview with Paul Tough

Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and has been featured on television and radio stations like PBS, MSNBC, and NPR, and in TIME Magazine, USA Today, and the New York Times. ACA recently spoke with Tough about why character strengths are critical to success and what camps offer kids as unique learning environments.

What are the key ingredients to success — the qualities that a child must have to become a successful adult?
I think kids need many different things. But the basic thesis of my book is that, in this country for the past couple decades, we’ve been overemphasizing IQ as the one measure of whether a child will succeed or fail. We’ve been very focused on this narrow set of cognitive skills that get measured on standardized tests.

And while cognitive skills certainly do matter, the scientists and educators who I wrote about in my book have identified a different set of skills that they say matter a whole lot in a child’s success. These are skills like grit, curiosity, perseverance, conscientiousness, and optimism.

I’m convinced by the research and by my reporting that these skills really do matter a great deal to a child’s success.

Do you think more people in general are starting to pay attention to noncognitive skills and their connection to success? This has been something that camps have recognized for years.
I do — very much so. When I started researching this book even just a few years ago, it still felt like a pretty quiet discussion. It felt like a discussion that was going on only in a fragmented way in different fields and in various organizations.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed how much this topic has emerged as a central one for educators, pediatricians, people working in government, and people working for youth development organizations.

It may just be that the rest of the world is catching up with the camp community, but I think it’s a conversation that’s going on in a lot of places now. Many people are coming to understand that these skills are really important for children’s success.

How do you successfully explain to parents and educators the value of character?
My sense is that parents don’t need a lot of convincing on the basic question of whether these character strengths matter. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months talking to parents and teachers in many different settings, and they’ve been very responsive to the idea that character matters in a child’s success.

I think parents can sometimes get frustrated with the fact that we don’t yet know what the perfect curriculum is; we don’t yet know the perfect way to develop these skills. But still, I think the idea that these skills matter resonates with parents and educators on a deep level. They know it from their own lives. They see it in their own kids. So they’re eager to accept this idea and embrace this idea when it’s presented to them as something that really matters.

Camp provides the opportunity for both autonomy and support, which is often not provided at home. What are your thoughts on the need for both as crucial in building character?
I think this is exactly what makes the camp experience so positive for so many kids. Kids need a combination of autonomy and support, and it’s often difficult for them to get this at home or at school. It’s a hard balance to strike for any parent or any teacher. Parents are sometimes so wrapped up in the emotional lives of our kids that it’s hard for us to pull back and let them have the autonomy they need. Or we go too far in the other direction and don’t give them the kind of love and support they need.

I think when camps are able to get it right and convey to kids that they’re supported and they’re safe, but also that they can do things they never dreamed they could do, it becomes a transformative experience. Camp is a place where kids can finally get that important message.

At camp, children can take risks, make mistakes, learn about community, fail, and succeed in a nurturing environment. What do you think about children making their own mistakes?
Making mistakes is precisely how we develop character strengths. As one educator put it to me (and I quote him in the book), character strengths like grit and self-control are born out of failure. And in so many American schools and homes these days, kids don’t get a chance to fail anything.

But when we are honest with children about failure, they are able to better understand their potential and their abilities. They need to learn how to fail in a productive way — that failures are real and we don’t all win every game, but that failures are not a disaster. Instead, they are often important stepping stones on the path to success.

I think when kids experience failure in a manageable way when they’re young, it helps make future setbacks much more bearable. They need that opportunity to “practice” failing and learn failure is not the end of the world. Only after knowing this will they go out into the world — whether that’s college or beyond — and not be completely derailed by setbacks. They learn how to bounce back and see that there’s a way to do better next time.

Adapted from “Camp and Character: An Interview with Paul Tough.” Originally published in the 2013 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.

Photo courtesy of Cheley Colorado Camps, Estes Park, Colorado.
 

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