Digression into “How Children Succeed”

There’s at least one other big point to make about Laudato Si’, about the linkage of the poor and the environment, which will wait for another night, because I wanted to post something else instead. I recently heard Paul Tough and picked up his book How Children Succeed, which is not directly related to my day job or my hobby, but which I found fascinating nonetheless. By all means buy it if you care about children, education, one particular child, or just interesting reporting.

Tough’s thesis is that what makes for successful students isn’t IQ but “non-cognitive skills” (which is a way of saying “character” without triggering culture wars). And one of the frameworks he takes, from a charter school called KIPP, was particularly intriguing to me, identifying 7 traits:

  1. Optimism
  2. Zest
  3. Grit
  4. Curiosity
  5. Social intelligence
  6. Gratitude
  7. Self-Control

If you are a TED fan, you make have seen Angela Duckworth’s short talk on Grit (he draws on Duckworth a lot, and I won’t link to her great talk here only because I think Tough’s book is more complete and better than her fine talk. And that you don’t have the grit to read the book if you can watch a 6 minute discussion of grit). And, yes, as I think of my own life and the future of my 11-year old, grit is the trait that most jumps out as a deficit.

But I raise this list and encourage you to read this book for two separate and unrelated reasons.

First, can’t we as Christians claim this list, different than it is from the “good, compliant manners” school of character traits, as our own? Is there anything more zesty and optimistic than joy? Is there anything more grateful than mercy? Doesn’t Paul expound on endurance and perseverance (which are just bigger words for grit), name self-control as a fruit of the Spirit, and eloquently expound upon social intelligence in describing how he became all things to all people to effectively deliver the Good News? And it is hard to hear Jesus reflect on the lilies of the field, or inquire into the lives and wants of those who seek his healing, without thinking he was more curious than many.

And the second point is contra Tough, who subscribes to the notion that our personalities are pretty well set after high school. Aren’t these characteristics worth a report card for us adults? And for our society? I have seen too many elders go south on optimism, and I guarantee that zest has cost us more in life, liveliness, and health expenses than obesity.

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