How to help your youngster become a successful adult

It’s more important to nurture and model good character than to stuff them full of facts and figures.

Some time ago, before the pandemic, I was having lunch at my favorite Chinese restaurant. At a nearby table, an enthusiastic dad was helping his 3-year-old trace the alphabet on colored paper. His son was excited and clearly enjoying all the attention and praise he received from his father. “Great job, Joey” his father exclaimed as the little boy drew an “E” with his small hands.

I remembered how delightful it was to share in my young children’s desire to learn and understand the world around them. They’re sponges for knowledge. While sometimes their innocent wonderings, repeated over and over, would drive me crazy, I marveled at their fresh view of the world around them.

But does acquiring knowledge, like learning the alphabet at age 3, result in greater success in adult life?

Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed,” isn’t so sure. His book, covering vast territory, examines the value of stuffing facts and figures into children. He’s interested in how parents and educators can prepare children for a successful adult life.

And surprisingly, it has little to do with how early you learn the alphabet, start reading or learn the capitals of every state. It has everything to do with something called “character.” He is not describing inborn traits that are unchangeable, but rather a set of qualities that can be taught, nurtured and reinforced by both parents and educators.

So, what attributes result in a successful, meaningful, and happy adult life? Here’s the short list: self-control, willpower, the ability to delay gratification, focus, persistence, conscientiousness and motivation. Psychologists David Levin and Dominic Randolph summarized this list into seven important qualities: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. I love it.

Look around you. It’s not the smartest or most knowledgeable individuals who rise to the top of an organization. It’s adults who can persist in accomplishing difficult tasks, who have good people skills, are able to delay gratification when necessary, stay focused on important tasks, are interested in how to do something better, and who radiate excitement, optimism and hope in the face of adversity. It’s these winning adults who praise the efforts of others, because they know that they couldn’t accomplish anything without their help. In addition to being winners, these folks find meaning and purpose in their lives.

How do we help children develop these virtues? Let’s face it; it’s far easier to teach a 3-year-old to recite the alphabet than to wait patiently for the fried rice to come to the table.

Here’s some things to consider.

Be thoughtful about what you praise. Overly focusing on grades can encourage kids to simply fill themselves with facts, like a stuffed turkey. They may end up feeling like performing seals. But what about sticking with something that’s tough? Focusing on what they learned? Encouraging them to share their opinions? Praising the ability to delay gratification? Encouraging curiosity? Children want our approval. Think carefully about what behavior you want to reinforce.

Engage with your child’s education. When my kids were assigned a book for school, I would read the same book. Then I would engage them in a discussion about the book. I asked, “What did you think about the main characters? What did you like about them? What was the point of the story? What was the moral of the story?” I wanted to encourage intellectual curiosity by asking them to think about what they learned.

Model the character traits you hope they will emulate. Table the lectures about character. Teach by example — those are lessons taken into your youngster’s heart and soul.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic, a part of Optum. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. healthwellness-library.html.

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