Camp and Character

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Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,

What are the key ingredients to success - the qualities that a child must have to become a successful adult?

I think kids need many different things. But the basic thesis of my book is that, in this country for the past couple decades, we've been overemphasizing IQ as the one measure of whether a child will succeed or fail. We've been very focused on this narrow set of cognitive skills that get measured on standardized tests.

And while cognitive skills certainly do matter, the scientists and educators who I wrote about in my book have identified a different set of skills that they say matter a whole lot in a child's success. These are skills like grit, curiosity, perseverance, conscientiousness, and optimism.

I'm convinced by the research and by my reporting that these skills really do matter a great deal to a child's success.

Are people born with these qualities or can they be taught? Kids are certainly influenced by the home environment in which they grow up, but teachers, youth development professionals, and mentors can do a lot to help them develop these skills. One thing that we've learned, especially from research in neuroscience over the past decade or so, is that when children grow up in environments of intense and chronic stress - what doctors call "toxic stress" - it makes it very difficult for them to develop the kinds of skills that they need to succeed.

One thing that can help children deal with that stress is when they are able to form a close bond with a parent or another caregiver - what psychologists call "secure attachment." That relationship can overcome a lot of those kinds of stresses. But the reality is there are many kids who grow up in very stressful situations without that kind of parental support, and for those kids, it's very difficult for them to develop these skills. But that's not to say that it's impossible - just difficult.

Camp provides the opportunity for both autonomy and support, which is often not provided at home. What are your thoughts on the need for both as crucial in building character?

I think this is exactly what makes the camp experience so positive for so many kids. Kids need a combination of autonomy and support, and it's often difficult for them to get this at home or at school. It's a hard balance to strike for any parent or any teacher. Parents are sometimes so wrapped up in the emotional lives of our kids that it's hard for us to pull back and let them have the autonomy they need. Or we go too far in the other direction and don't give them the kind of love and support they need.

I think when camps are able to get it right and convey to kids that they're supported and they're safe, but also that they can do things they never dreamed they could do, it becomes a transformative experience. Camp is a place where kids can finally get that important message.

At camp, children can take risks, make mistakes, learn about community, fail, and succeed in a nurturing environment. What do you think about children making their own mistakes?

Making mistakes is precisely how we develop character strengths. As one educator put it to me (and I quote him in the book), character strengths like grit and self-control are born out of failure. And in so many American schools and homes these days, kids don't get a chance to fail anything.

But when we are honest with children about failure, they are able to better understand their potential and their abilities. They need to learn how to fail in a productive way - that failures are real and we don't all win every game, but that failures are not a disaster. Instead, they are often important stepping stones on the path to success.

I think when kids experience failure in a manageable way when they're young, it helps make future setbacks much more bearable. They need that opportunity to "practice" failing and learn failure is not the end of the world. Only after knowing this will they go out into the world - whether that's college or beyond - and not be completely derailed by setbacks. They learn how to bounce back and see that there's a way to do better next time.

Originally printed in Camping Magazine, excerpted and reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association 2013 American Camping Association, Inc.

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