I think in some ways we know this, because lots of us have had that experience with a teacher or a coach or a music tutor; the ones that we remember are the ones who were tough on us, not mean or belittling, but the ones who said, “No, this isn’t good enough. You can do better.” That’s an incredibly powerful message for a kid to hear. It’s not wounding. Just looking at my own three-year-old and remembering my own experiences, when kids feel like they’ve got a teacher or a parent really on their side, then I think they’re very much willing to hear some very tough messages.
The larger message, then, is how much non-cognitive character traits matter to success in life. For example, making it through university. What’s the difference between kids who drop out and kids who finish? You argue that it’s not intelligence …
It is something else. There’s not a great body of research on persistence and grit and curiosity and optimism as separate categories. I think those are all really important character strengths, but research generally tends to lump them together.
So, at this stage, we have to look at what we know about non-cognitive skills in general. College persistence offers some clear evidence: IQ matters a lot in terms of what your freshman GPA is, but graduating from college has much more to do with character strengths like persistence, perseverance and grit. It’s that ability to deal with setbacks, because in college you’re always going to have setbacks – whether it’s not being able to pay a tuition bill, or not getting along with your roommate, or failing a class.
There are always moments where kids can drop out, especially kids from low-income neighbourhoods where they’re the first person in their family to go to college. The whole system is kind of pushing them to fail, so in order for them to make it through college, they need a huge amount of non-cognitive skill.
It’s interesting to think about how kids can be almost pushed to fail, or inherently succeed. You write about fascinating science looking at the connection between infant brain chemistry and adult psychology – at least in rats. Should we look to rats as model parents?
An interesting question. Michael Meaney and a team of neuroscientists at McGill University have discovered some amazing things about mother rats and their kids. When their pups are stressed out, certain mother rats do something very specific – they lick and groom them to calm them down.
Even when these pups are weaned from their mothers and kept separate until adulthood, the ones who have had warm, attached relationships as infants do much better at all sorts of skills: They are better at mazes, they are braver and more curious, less nervous in all sorts of ways. That research parallels a lot of what has been done on the importance of secure (human) attachment between a parent and a child in the first year of life. There are huge correlations between a child’s attachment style in that first year and what they’ll be like in kindergarten, how well they’ll get along at camp with peers, even how likely that child is to graduate or drop out of high school.
So should we be licking and grooming our kids?
I think that we should, in a way. I do think that for infants – and I was reading all this research just as my wife and I had our first child – the most important thing is that warm, stable attachment relationship with a parent. I should say that the word attachment in parenting has become a little confused in the past few years. I don’t mean the kind of super-attachment parenting that gets you nursing your child on the cover of Time magazine. This is basic, good parenting, being responsive to an infant’s cues, coming when they cry ... but it makes a huge difference early on.
That’s very different from the message we were just talking about – about getting tough on your kids. I don’t think that is the right message for parents of infants. One of the conclusions I’ve reached is that, in the first year or two of life, kids don’t need adversity, they need comfort and support. But then part of what makes parenting so complicated is that right at the stage I’m at now, my son is 3, kids’ needs shift; now, my son needs to prove his independence and his ability to deal with problems. But when a child has that attachment experience in the first year or so, the research shows they have a lot more confidence to be independent and bold and curious when they get to toddlerhood, and childhood and adolescence.