By: Becky Post

A friend of mine had taught kindergarten for years. I remember her talking about the parents of one particularly disruptive little boy. At a parent conference, the parents were barely concerned with their son’s behavior. To this teacher’s dismay, what really concerned these parents was, Is my child smart? These particular parents did not seem to realize that many qualities, besides intelligence, contribute to a child’s overall success in school. Some of these qualities include collaboration and self-regulation. Collaboration is illustrated by teamwork, empathy, and interpersonal skills. Self-regulation is illustrated by the capacity to control one’s emotions and behaviors to fit a situation.

I recently heard Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, address a large group of educators and youth development workers in Minneapolis. Mr. Tough, a journalist, talked about our country’s flawed obsession with using IQ and academic measurement as a predictor of future success. His book synthesizes mountains of research on what is really behind children’s success. He cited research that came up with a list of seven strengths—or noncognitive skills―that can predict life satisfaction and high achievement: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

Two of these qualities—grit and self-control—are born out of failure. Failure, then, can be a useful instructor as we go forward in life. Apparently, it is important to make mistakes and consequently learn how to manage that failure.

My colleagues and I are especially intrigued by the notion of grit. Angela Duckworth, a doctor of psychology at University of Pennsylvania, came up with a grit score that allows people to measure their ability to persevere. Dr. Duckworth has found that the grit score can predict how well West Point cadets will do in a difficult training program called “Beast Barracks.” In fact, grit was more important to the cadets’ success than physical fitness, leadership skills, or intelligence.

Research shows that people who experience a moderate amount of adversity do better in life. For children, that adversity might be the result of parents who divorce or a parent who loses a job. As adults, we often experience problems of one kind or another, and our kids know it. What’s key is to model good coping skills to our children when adversity happens.

This idea make me feel hopeful. First of all, most of us can point to parents, teachers, and other adults who modeled perseverance, resilience, and numerous other positive qualities when we were young. And most likely, we are modeling the same qualities now to the young people in our lives.

I came across a quote from Steve Jobs, the now deceased leader of Apple, “Stay Hungry. Stay foolish.” Steve Jobs was many things: intelligent, mercurial, charismatic, and very difficult by many accounts. He experienced big failures—even losing control of his own company for a period of years—but he always roared back with more ideas, more creativity, more fortitude. The man had grit. May our children catch this same spirit.

Rebecca Post is the director of content development at Search Institute.

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