How children (don’t) succeed

Excerpted from the Child in Mind blog on boston.com.

I had the privilege of speaking with Paul Tough on the very day that his new book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character’’ was released. I am thrilled that his book is receiving the attention it is. In presenting his thesis that character, rather than cognitive skill, is the key to success, he brings some very important research to the forefront of public discussion.

Extensive research has shown that in the setting of a safe, secure caregiving relationship, children develop the capacity for emotional regulation, cognitive resourcefulness, resilience, and the capacity for social adaptation. He uses somewhat different words — including grit, curiosity, self-control, and gratitude — and refers to these traits as a whole as “character.”

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From my view as a pediatrician and scholar of developmental theory, I see significant obstacles to promoting character development in the way he is advocating for. I wonder if, in addition to funding programs that promote character, or funding research to study these programs, as Tough effectively argues we should be doing, we need to understand the nature of these obstacles.

With that in mind, I asked Tough about three interrelated issues: our society’s undervaluing of primary health care, overreliance on psychiatric medication, and childism — which Elisabeth Young-Bruehl defined in a recent book as a prejudice against children rooted in a belief that they are property and can be (or even should) be controlled to serve adult needs.

Consider the following scenario, variations of which are exceedingly common. It starts with a mother who is under significant stress in pregnancy. Then she has a baby who “cries all the time.” She may struggle with postpartum depression. The combination of depression and a fussy baby makes providing the kind of attuned relationship a newborn needs extremely difficult. But in the absence of an effective PPD screening and treatment program, the pair may not get help. There is severe sleep deprivation, marital stress, and many other factors that make it difficult to be responsive in the way that supports character development.

By age 3, the child has significant trouble with emotional regulation. His pediatrician, under the time constraint of the 10- to 15-minute visit, likely will offer behavior management advice about such things as time out. She likely will not have the opportunity to hear about the stressed marriage or the mother’s depression, much less to take the time necessary to make an appropriate referral.

At age 4, the child is disruptive in preschool. An evaluation for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is recommended by his teachers. He meets diagnostic criteria and is started on stimulant medication, and immediately his behavior improves. But soon the problems resurface as the underlying issues have not been addressed. The dose is increased. The medication is changed. This continues throughout the rest of his childhood.

I don’t claim to have the answer to the problem of childism, but I do think that if we are going to be able to make use of Tough’s very important book to implement meaningful change, it at least needs to be acknowledged.