From The Urban Child Institute’s Perceptions commentaries:

By Eugene Cashman

Grit is a word that is now synonymous with Memphis, thanks to the success of our Grizzlies, but it’s a word that should be associated with more than our NBA team. It should also indicate the kind of character we want to develop in our children.

Grit is the indomitable spirit that can make the difference between success and failure. It is the result of emotional and social development that in the end indicates whether we, as parents and caregivers, have prepared our children to become adults with the curiosity, compassion, self-control, optimism, and self-esteem for success.

It’s clear that some children who grow up in adverse situations can rise above them and achieve incredible things. What makes these children different from their less fortunate peers? Many experts claim that the key difference is grit — the resilience to encounter and overcome life’s obstacles.

The Power of Character

In our metric-driven culture, we often assume that success stems solely from scoring highest on tests in school. But more and more, we are learning from the research that character can matter as much intelligence.

This is the theme of Paul Tough’s compelling book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. It chronicles the research-based evidence that character can be more crucial than brainpower.

As children develop, they need age-appropriate opportunities to overcome obstacles on their own. This means learning that succeeding sometimes requires failing a few times first. With positive parenting in a supportive home environment, children learn that these small failures are necessary steps toward bigger achievements. They develop resilience that will serve them well throughout life.

The need to develop character applies to all families, regardless of income or family type. Many middle-income parents are overprotective: they insulate their children from challenges. By doing so, they also interfere with the development of resilience and the ability to persevere.

Low-income children are likely to have no shortage of obstacles, but their parents may be too distracted by the various problems associated with poverty to provide the kind of environment that helps children learn the right lessons from facing difficulties.

Loving Parents Are The Antidote to Stress

Stress in their first three years of life affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is critical in development of self-control and self-regulation. Children who grow up in these stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to focus and be still, harder to handle disappointments, and harder to follow directions, and all of these make classroom learning more difficult.

The antidote to stress is nurturing, attentive, responsive parenting. But often, parents have stresses and problems of their own that hinder this kind of childrearing. Parenting classes and neighborhood-based programs can pay big dividends by intervening directly in individualized, personal ways to mitigate the stress in parents’ and children’s lives.

As James Heckman, Nobel Prize-winning economist, has concluded, investments made in the first three years of children’s lives pay the biggest returns. This is the period when their brains are developing at astonishing speeds that will never occur again in their lifetimes. It’s the principle at the heart of our Baby Small campaign.

Improving Children’s Odds

There is no argument today about the importance of the first three years of a child’s life.

There is also no argument that early experiences have life-long consequences, and that nurturing, supportive parenting gives a child his best odds to reach his potential.

Judging by the growing evidence, there will soon be no argument that skills like grit and resilience are as predictive as cognitive skills.

And hopefully, there is no argument that one of our community’s greatest obligations is to fight to give every child her best start in life.


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