TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — As yet another new school year begins, it is every parent’s hope their children will succeed, whether it be the first day of preschool or the start of senior year of high school. But what are those sometimes elusive ingredients of success in the 21st century?
A recent addition to the Truckee Library, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” by Paul Tough provides a fascinating answer. Booklist deems it a “very hopeful look at promising new research on education,” while the New York Times notes it “illuminates the extremes of American childhood: for rich kids, a safety net drawn so tight, it’s a harness; for poor kids, almost nothing to break their fall.”
Debunking the conventional wisdom of the past few decades children need to develop basic reading and counting skills before entering school, Tough argues they would be better served by learning such skills as grit, conscientiousness, curiosity, and optimism. It boils down to a debate about precognitive versus non-cognitive skills of self-regulation or, simply put, character.
Tough spent two years interviewing students, teachers, and administrators at failing public schools, alternative programs, charter schools, elite schools, and a variety of after-school programs. He also interviewed psychologists, economists, and neuroscientists and examined the latest research on character education to discover what actually works in teaching children skills that will aid them in school and in life, whatever the circumstances of their childhoods.
Most compelling are Tough’s portraits of adolescents from backgrounds rife with poverty, violence, drug-addicted parents, sexual abuse, and failing schools, who manage to gain skills that help them overcome their adversities and go on to college. Tough ultimately argues in favor of research indicating that these important skills can be learned and children’s lives saved.
A similar book that speaks to importance of character, also available at the Truckee Library, is Rafe Esquith’s “Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World.”
The award-winning elementary school teacher struck bestselling gold with his acclaimed memoir, “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire.” In this more recent work, he continues to focus on the financially disadvantaged but scholastically ambitious fifth-graders from Hobart Elementary School, located in the middle of a critically poor Los Angeles neighborhood.
Esquith offers a firsthand narrative for inspiring and encouraging each child to live up to his or her tremendous promise. Framed by the story of a Dodgers baseball game to which he brings a small group of students, he notes the values of his students in contrast to many of the adult ticket-holders: punctuality, focus, confidence, selflessness, humility, and others.
Whether he is highlighting the importance of time management or offering a step-by-step discussion of how children can become good decision makers, Esquith shows how parents can equip their kids with all the tools they need to find success. Using examples from classic films and books, he stresses the value of sacrifice, the importance of staying true to oneself, and the danger television can pose to growing young minds.
I can’t help but think these books are an antidote to our decade-long emphasis on standardized test scores and Baby Einstein brand of early childhood cognitive development.
This renewed emphasis on the character of the whole child versus a percentile ranking is a very good thing. Develop the character traits of persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence and the test scores will follow!
Teri Andrews Rinne is the children’s services librarian at the Truckee Library, 10031 Levon Ave., Truckee. Call 530-582-7846 or visit www.mynevadacounty.com/library.