How to help your youngster become a successful adult

Research suggests it’s more important to play with your toddler than teach her the alphabet.

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 son trace the alphabet on colored paper. The boy was excited and clearly enjoying the attention and praise 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 are 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 bestselling book, which covers vast territory, examines the value of stuffing facts and figures into children’s heads. He is 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”.

Tough is not describing inborn traits that are unchangeable, but rather a set of qualities that can be taught, nurtured and reinforced by 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 are able to persist in accomplishing difficult tasks, who have good people skills, who are able to delay gratification when necessary, stay focused on an important task, who are interested in how to do something better, and who radiate excitement, optimism and hope — even in the face of adversity. It is 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 write the alphabet than to wait patiently for dinner to be served.

Researchers found that children who had a “secure attachment” with their parents were more socially competent throughout their lives and better able to develop relationships with others. They were able to operationalize social intelligence more effectively than those children who had an “insecure” attachment with their parents. Moms and dads who responded most sensitively to the emotional needs of their infants and children nurtured more independent and self-reliant children.

The take-home message: It is 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 will learn how to read and write in due time. But we want to make sure she feels safe, secure and loved for who she is. Kids that are filled with facts, like a stuffed turkey, may end up feeling like performing seals. They are valued for what they know, not who they are.

What about nurturing “grit” — which refers to discipline, focus, persistence and the ability to delay gratification? Be thoughtful about what behavior 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, soul and feet.

Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His Family Talk Blog can be found at

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