The secret of success...and how to help our children get there.
‘Why Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character’ is a best-selling book in the US which has now been published in the UK. Hilary Wilce recently reviewed this in The Guardian, and summed up the book’s message as “Character matters. In fact it matters more than anything else when it comes to doing well in school – and life”.
This is not exactly a new message, but its author, Paul Tough, and Wilce clearly feel that it is a message which needs exploring and emphasising, as in our current climate both parents and schools can work against it, either by being too protective, or neglectful, of children. According to Wilce, the book stresses that it is perseverance, motivation and determination which ultimately help children succeed. So, if we agree, how do we instil these values and build these traits in our sons and daughters?
First of all I would suggest that parents and schools need to work together to achieve this, communicating clearly with, and supporting, each other for the benefit of the child at the centre of the relationship. Too often schools and parents can come into conflict, each arguably believing they are acting in the best interests of the child, but the fact that there is tension usually erodes those interests.
Both in school and at home young people need to be guided and supported to build the skills they will need to deal with the challenges, and to take advantage of the opportunities, life is likely to present to them. They need to develop a sense of commitment, and see things through. How often does a young person fail to honour a commitment because a more attractive alternative has presented itself, or, when it comes to it, they lack the will or the sense of responsibility to see something through? Parents and schools need clearly to communicate the message that this is unacceptable, and that commitments, once made, should be fulfilled.Positive self-esteem is important, and we want to help our children to feel good about themselves and their achievements (at whatever level). Ian Gilbert, of Independent Thinking, once addressed the staff of the school where I was a head and suggested that for anyone to have healthy self-esteem they need to feel that they are both ‘capable’ and ‘loveable’. I would agree, and suggest that we need to find opportunities to reinforce our children’s sense that they are both loveable and capable – ensure they feel confident of our love for them, and encourage them to recognise (and assure them we recognise) the things they can do.
However, having high self-esteem should not mean that they have an inflated sense of their place in the scheme of things; we want them to care about others, to empathise and to treat those around them with respect and consideration. We would also like our young people to have a sense of social responsibility so that they also care about the world beyond the narrow parameters within which they experience it. Certainly they need, as they grow older, to develop breadth of perception and to see that they are not the centre of the universe.
The ‘happiness’ agenda has not been entirely helpful, here. The idea that we all have an automatic right to permanent happiness can lead to parents tackling schools which have made their child ‘unhappy’ by not giving them the part they hoped for in the play; not placing them in the swimming team; not making them a prefect or predicting the A level grades they feel they need. I would suggest that parents need to consider how best to help their sons and daughters cope with occasional disappointment, to dust themselves off and move on, rather than trying to pressure others to change their decisions in order to secure the outcome the young person wants. Only in this way can we build resilience and ensure young people develop the skills they will need to deal with the reality of life beyond school and parental protection.
So think about how we can support our children to develop a sense of commitment, the ‘stickability’ to see things through, the persistence not to give up too easily when the going gets tough. If we can achieve this, then we are far more likely to build the ‘character’ in young people which will enable them to live positive, well-balanced, responsible and fulfilling lives.