The tough way to help kids succeed

There’s something your children may not be getting enough of these days. Sure, vegetables come to mind. And so does sleep. But it’s neither of those.

A chorus of voices from economists to neuroscientists, educators and psychologists say the thing parents aren’t letting their kids have enough of is adversity.

I know. Where do you buy that, right?

Dr. Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” started this ball rolling several years ago. Who better than a man named Tough to tell parents they’re soft?

Dr. Tough writes, “American children, especially those who grow up in relative comfort, are, more than ever, shielded from failure as they grow up. If this new research is right, their schools, their families, and their culture may all be doing them a disservice by not giving them more opportunities to struggle.”

He’s right. We pick kids up before they hit the ground. We fight their battles for them and buffer them from the consequences of their actions. Then we wonder why they bail when the going gets tough. We never let them practice.

Tough says, “Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.”

I can’t think of Tough’s admonition without thinking of our son’s knee caps. He’s missing the groove that holds the knee cap in place. He used to fall down at soccer games a lot and we didn’t know why. Then one day a neighbor boy ran in the house and said, “You better come quickly.”

Our son was in the driveway where they’d been playing basketball. His knee cap was dangling at the side of his leg. It was the first of numerous dislocations, casts and crutches for months at a time, three surgeries and endless physical therapy. After one of his surgeries, his leg muscles were so atrophied they sent us home with a contraption that would send an electrical current to awaken them. He was doing half-hearted leg lifts, I was grimacing every time I gave him a jolt of current, and he looked completely dejected.

I got on the floor next to him and said, “I don’t know why you have flat kneecaps, but I know that suffering produces perseverance and perseverance produces character.”

He looked at me, eyes brimming with tears, and said, “But I don’t want to learn character!”

I thought, “You and me both, buddy. But here we are.”

Nobody volunteers for adversity. Nobody waves their arms in the air and yells, “Over here! I want to learn character. Choose me!” Nobody intrinsically wants to struggle, do the hard thing, climb uphill or hurdle the roadblock. But sometimes, the very things we don’t want are the things that build strength and character and forge an ability to endure.

You can’t teach a kid character, perseverance or fortitude in a workshop or a class. But kids can learn from physical challenges, academic struggles, small failures and big disappointments. Of course, that’s providing parents will back off and let them.

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