Helping Children Succeed

Principles of positive character development in children

Paul Tough has written an excellent book on the importance of character to children’s academic success (How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). Tough documents the devastating effects of adverse childhood experiences on children’s ability to cope with stress, and he reports on recent educational programs to help students develop “non-cognitive” skills – grit, optimism, curiosity, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, and self-control – that are essential to success in life.

Based on this research, Tough wisely recommends that parents take an active, supportive approach to raising their children. Then, as we support them, parents also need to let children fail, so they can learn to manage failure and learn from their mistakes.

This is sound and important advice. But we can do more. Here are some additional principles and parenting recommendations that have been shown to strengthen children’s character:

• Optimism. All children, even the most protected, experience disappointment, frustration, and failure. Moments of anxiety and discouragement are present in any constructive activity, whether we are writing an essay, studying for an exam, practicing an instrument, or learning to play chess.

If we pay attention, as psychologist Carol Dweck advises, not only to a child’s performance, but also to the process of learning, we will observe these moments. We can then acknowledge her frustration and discouragement, and talk with her about it. (More than anything else, it may help children to know that we have also had these feelings, and that we have bounced back.) The result, over time, is optimism and resilience.

Every time we help a child bounce back from anxiety and frustration, she has gained some increment of perseverance and self-discipline.

• Listening. Patient listening has gone out of style in our current preoccupation with finding strategies to solve children’s behavior problems. But, at the end of the day, there is no more important parenting skill than this, and nothing that we do as parents that is more important to our children’s success in life.

When we listen, patiently and sympathetically, to our children’s concerns and, especially, when we repair moments of anger and misunderstanding, children experience reduced stress and then, increased cognitive and emotional flexibility.

In an important series of studies by psychologist John Gottman and his colleagues, children of parents who valued and accepted their children’s feelings showed better academic achievement, had lower levels of stress hormones, and were more successful in resolving conflicts with their peers. This parenting style, which Gottman calls “emotion coaching,” may also be a protective factor against the destructive consequences of marital conflict and divorce.

• Encouragement. So often, in our anxiety and our understandable zeal to teach children the skills they will need to thrive as adults, we become angry and critical. Criticism, of course, is a necessary part of learning. Harsh or persistent criticism, however, is a toxin that undermines a child’s initiative and confidence. Children need encouragement more than they need criticism, just as we all do. When we are encouraging, we make note of every increment of effort and progress, not every mistake.

• Interest. Tough identifies curiosity and zest as qualities of character that contribute to children’s success. I have also found this to be true in my therapeutic work with children and families. As parents, we support our children’s curiosity and zest when we respond with enthusiastic interest to our children’s interests (even if these are not the interests we would choose). Our interest in his interest is the surest way to engage a child in dialogue and a first principle of strengthening a child’s desire to learn.

• Play. Social intelligence is not learned in front of a screen, or from lectures and admonishments. Children learn to understand the needs and feelings of others when we play and work with them often. In many respects, interactive play is to children’s social development what talking with children is to their vocabulary development and what exercise is to their physical development.

• Doing for Others. Individual achievement is not all that matters. A growing body of scientific research supports the conclusion that doing good things for others is also good for us. Across cultures, a child’s participation in family and community responsibilities, including household chores, promotes caring and helpful behavior. We should therefore make doing for others a regular, not just occasional, part of our family lives. Children learn from this work that they have something to offer, and they experience the appreciation of others. They learn how good it feels, to themselves and to others, to do good work.

• Pride. We also need to remember the intangibles. Our children look up to us. They look up to us even when they are behaving badly, and when they challenge our ideas or rebel against our rules. Because they look up to us, our pride in their character and their accomplishments remains important, throughout their lives. A child’s inner certainty that we are proud of her and that we believe she is capable of doing good things is an anchor that sustains her in moments of discouragement, temptation, and self-doubt.

In these ways, we strengthen our children’s inner resources. And we will have prepared them, as best we can, for the challenges and responsibilities they will face as adults.

(Originally published on

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