How to help your youngster become a successful adult

Surprisingly, it has little to do with how early you learn the alphabet, start reading, or learn the capitals of every state.

A couple of weeks ago, 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 enjoying the attention and praise from his dad. “Great job, Joey!” his father exclaimed as the little boy drew an “e” with his tiny hands.

I remembered how delightful it was to share my young children’s desire to learn and understand the world around them. They were 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 3 years old, result in greater success in adult life?

Paul Tough, author of “How children succeed” isn’t so sure. His bestselling book covers vast territory and 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.

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’s 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.

What qualities lead to a successful, fulfilling and happy adulthood? Here’s the short list: self-control, willpower, the ability to delay gratification, focus, persistence, conscientiousness and motivation. Summarized, they are grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. I love it.

Look around you. It’s not the most intelligent or most knowledgeable individuals who rise to the top of an organization. It’s adults who can persist in accomplishing difficult tasks, have good people skills, delay gratification, stay focused on important tasks and are interested in how to do something better. These winning adults 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.

Having a secure attachment with parents helps kids develop social competence throughout their lives and makes them better able to develop relationships with others. They’re able to operationalize social intelligence effectively. Moms and dads who respond sensitively to the emotional needs of their infants and children nurture independent and self-reliant adults.

The take-home message: It’s probably more important to get down on the floor and play with your toddler than to teach her the alphabet. Like all of us, she’ll learn to read and write in due time. But we want to make sure she feels safe, secure and loved for who she is. Kids who are filled with facts, like a stuffed turkey, may feel like performing seals. They’re valued for what they know, not who they are.

But what about nurturing “grit,” which refers to discipline, focus, persistence and the ability to delay gratification? Be thoughtful about what behaviors you reinforce in your child. Reward sustained effort more thoroughly than performance. Emphasize the ability to control your impulses over acquiring facts. Model these behaviors at home.

Teach by example. These lessons are taken into your youngster’s heart and soul.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. For more information, visit

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