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Finding that right balance key to growing up

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One tends to be reflective when a grandchild starts school, as mine and thousands of other Manitoba Grade 1 students did this week.

One also tends to flash forward and wonder how it will all turn out for him. Later, my daughter, Erin, would report how Jacob and Lisa, his friend from kindergarten, reassuringly held hands in the hallway before school, as if they were diving out of a plane for the first time instead of walking into their classroom. Erin would also mention how, as she took a photo of her son leaving for that first day, Jacob was concerned about being late.

I'm not sure if that early eagerness suggests anything important about future success over the next 12 years, and hopefully onward. But an American journalist, author and new father named Paul Tough believes he has collected answers. And it isn't as simple as Tough himself once thought when his now-three-year-old was born.

"I sort of went into parenthood feeling the way a lot of anxious parents do. That I had to, you know, break out the Baby Einstein DVDs and the flashcards, pretty much in the maternity ward."

He said that this week in an American public radio interview about his just-released book where his change of mind is reflected in the title. It's called How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character.

Tough came to the conclusion suggested in the subtitle in large part by delving into breakthrough scientific findings on the brain, and by doing his own research in schools both the poor and the privileged attend.

His basic findings about school success aren't surprising if you relate at least two of the primary ingredients to top-tier professional sports leagues such as the National Hockey League, where players admired for having "grit" and drafted because of their "character" end up making the team, ahead of players who are more naturally gifted but perhaps less focused and driven.

Tough's own understanding was helped by watching kindergarten and preschool children learning to follow rules in a program of make-believe play called Tools of the Mind, where he learned what the kids were really teaching themselves.

"The most important skill is self-regulation."

But his other eureka moment came from the findings of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who concluded what separated the life-outcome results of lower-achieving high school equivalency grads from students who earned a high school diploma the conventional way wasn't IQ scores.

It was character.

"Basically," Tough said, "what those high school graduates had was the ability to get through high school, the ability to delay gratification, put up with a boring task, to figure out what the teacher wanted, to get up in the morning and show up at school. And that is really what a high school diploma signifies. That those are really valuable skills in terms of how you do in life."

But this kind of character, Tough argues, can be taught through another hidden power.

Adversity.

And from what I'll call the underappreciated power of parenting.

Tough talked about research that suggests how important close, nurturing bonds are in a child's early development. Conversely, what's equally as important to their development and future success is knowing when to be hands-off. Even if, as Tough said about his own three-year-old, it's difficult not to go with the instinctive tendency to immediately help your children up when they fall. Or later in life when they fail at something.

That brings us to adversity, and the Tough lesson, so to speak, that I found most telling and compelling.

What he concluded is kids from upper-income suburban neighbourhoods tend to experience too little adversity because of overprotective parents. Whereas kids in violence and poverty-plagued inner-city areas experience too much adversity, and the challenge of parents isn't overprotecting their children, it's protecting them enough.

"Kids need a little adversity," Tough said, "but not a lot of adversity."

Which brings me back to my grandson's first day of school.

This week wasn't just Jacob's first day at school, it was his mother's first time back at university in a decade. Erin is determined to go into a new career, and work part time while being a mother. Is that facing adversity? Yeah, but I look at it as showing grit. And that's really the most important characteristic in a person, because it is what we need to succeed in life. Or, simply to get through the aforementioned adversity, that one class in the school of life no one can skip. Even with a parent's note.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 B1

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