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What exactly does it take for a child to succeed in life? Is it good grades? High test scores? Tenacity?

According to Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever it Takes, adults focus on high test scores, pre-admission to preschool and SAT scores as child-success indicators.

Based on research, however, Tough says we focus too much on these areas. He believes that the most important qualities have more to do with character. These skills include perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control.

Tough and his wife became parents while he was writing his book. Surprisingly, the research actually made him a more relaxed parent. When his son was born, Tough was very much caught up in the idea of childhood as a race – the faster a child develops skills and the better he does on tests, the better he’ll do in life.

These days, the author is much less concerned about his son’s reading and counting ability. While he certainly believes those things are important, he’s more concerned about his character. He wants his son to be able to recover from disappointments, calm himself down, keep working at a puzzle even when it’s frustrating and be good at sharing. He also wants his son to feel loved and confident, and have a full sense of belonging. Most importantly, Tough wants his son to be able to handle failure.

It’s hard for us parents to let our children fail. Why is that? Because everything in us wants to shield them from trouble. But Tough and others are now discovering that we may actually harm our children when we try to protect them. By not allowing them to learn to manage adversity or to cope with failure, we produce kids who have real problems when they grow up. Overcoming adversity produces character. And character, even more than IQ, leads to real and lasting success.

According to Tough, scientists realize that early adversity in a child’s life affects the conditions of their lives.
It can also alter the physical development of their brains. This knowledge is being used nationwide to help children overcome constraints.

Regardless of socioeconomic status, Tough contends that children with the proper support in the most painful circumstances can still achieve amazing things. But many children do not grow up with that right support. For example, there may be two parents in the home who are so bent on their child’s success that they never let him experience failure. Or at the completely opposite end of the spectrum, there’s no support to help the child get back up when he fails.

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Is it possible that a skinned knee, failure on a test and not planning your child’s life completely is really a good thing? Dr. Wendy Mogel, clinical psychologist and author of The Blessing of the Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus, would say yes.

“The biggest problem I see today is that loving, devoted parents, armed with good intentions, treat their children like royalty,” says Mogel. “Parents are putting themselves in the role of butler, secret police, talent agent, ATM and hospital staff member, doing things for their children that they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves.”

Mogel believes this parental behavior is ultimately a bad set-up for kids.

“I frequently see parents who treat their children like hothouse flowers, who must depend on their parents for survival,” she says. “They overschedule, overprotect and overindulge their children to the point that the children end up feeling a combination of entitled, dependent, anxious and like they don’t measure up.”

In many instances, these young people head off to college full of hope. Three months later, they return home because they didn’t know how to deal with their roommate or the professor refused to spoon-feed them information. Perhaps, they simply don’t know how to work through problems on their own.

If it feels like Mogel is stepping all over your toes, you are not alone.

“There are many great parents out there with fantastic intentions who get carried away in their efforts to raise a successful adult,” Mogel says. “In the end, nobody wins. Boys go on strike, girls become perfectionistic, and parents get angry.”

So, how can parents avoid falling in this trap?

Mogel provides these words of encouragement to well-intentioned parents:

  • Kids go through phases … glorious ones and rotten ones. Do not confuse today’s snapshot with the epic movie of your child’s life.
  • Know the difference between a child’s wants and needs. Don’t fall for the smooth-talking 15-year-old’s line: “Mom, you’ll probably want to buy me a brand-new car. It’ll be really, really, really, safe … definitely safer than me driving your big, old van.” Privileges are not entitlements.
  • Let them learn to do for themselves. Remember, your child is competent.
  • Listen four times more than you talk. Before you nag, remind, criticize, advise, chime in or over-explain, say to yourself “W.A.I.T” (Why am I talking?)
  • Remember that disappointments are a necessary preparation for adult life. Stay calm when your child isn’t invited to her friend’s party, gets cut from the team or doesn’t get a lead role. Without these experiences, your child will be ill-equipped for the real world.
  • Be alert, but not automatically alarmed. Stop and ask yourself: Is this situation unsafe or just uncomfortable for my child? Is it an emergency or a new challenge?
  • Don’t take it personally if your teenager treats you badly. You can’t always judge his character on the consistency of in-house politeness, clear speech or degree of eye contact. Instead, notice what teachers say and whether he’s welcome at his friends’ houses. Also, observe his manners with neighbors, salespeople and servers in restaurants.

Mogel readily acknowledges that parenting is hard work and that the competition is fierce. However, parents who are intent on raising self-reliant, resilient and accountable young people will gladly put forth the effort.

What’s the secret to a happy life? Many might say that money is a big part of the equation. But intrigued with discovering the secrets to a meaningful and happy life, a group of Harvard researchers launched a study in 1938. Then, they followed 268 male Harvard undergraduates – for 75 years.

The unique Harvard Grant Study collected data on the men’s lives through surveys and interviews. They looked at all aspects, including relationships, politics and religion, coping strategies and alcohol use. What they found may surprise you.

Perhaps one of the biggest revelations was that love really does matter when it comes to living a fulfilled life.

In his book about the study, Triumphs of Experience, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, study director from 1972 to 2004, writes: “There are two pillars of happiness. One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”

The study’s most important finding? Relationships are the only things that matter in life. You could have a successful career, money and good physical health, but without supportive, loving relationships, you’d be unhappy. The ability to take in love is a great human skill.

Interestingly, Vaillant says that so many of the things people thought mattered when it comes to happiness don’t. For example, many believe money and social class are vital to success. These two things were at the bottom of the list.

Even our earliest relationships are important to long-term happiness, especially the mother-child relationship. Men who had a warm mother-child bond were less likely to develop dementia later in life. They were also more likely to have professional success.

Avoiding smoking and not abusing alcohol were by far the most important things to increase longevity. The study found that alcohol abuse was the greatest disruptor of health and happiness for the study’s subjects. Alcoholism was the leading cause of divorce among the 268 men and their wives. Plus, a strong correlation existed between alcohol abuse, neurosis and depression. Interestingly, the mental illness followed the alcohol abuse rather than preceding it.

Another interesting finding: More money, power and intelligence do not mean more happiness. Vaillant found that men with IQs between 110 and 115 were no more or less happy than men with IQs higher than 150. Furthermore, the only thing that really matters when it comes to achievement is contentment at work. Having a meaningful connection to our work is more important than achieving traditional success.

Additionally, Vaillant found that early success did not necessarily mean future success. Conversely, failure early in life did not necessarily mean ultimate failure. In fact, some who seemed they would not end up doing well actually became successful. Vaillant shares that the journey from immaturity to maturity is a sort of movement from narcissism to connection. Moreover, a big part of this shift has to do with the way challenges are handled.

In the end, it all comes back to relationships, connection and love. Are you on a pathway to happiness and a meaningful life or a dead-end road?

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on January 17, 2016.