education | December 11, 2012

Nature vs. Nurture: Paul Tough On Early Determinants of Character [VIDEO]

Paul Tough's interdisciplinary approach to education and childhood development argues for the importance of character as a determinant for success. In a recent interview with L.A. Times columnist Patt Morrison, the author of How Children Succeed explains not just why character building matters—but how we can determine early on whether those traits are developing. He helps lay the groundwork for how we can then overcome the obstacles that prevent children from acquiring these vital character traits. Tough says that non-cognitive skills such as grit, perseverance and curiosity are as important, if not more so, than cognitive intelligence in determining how successful a child will be both in school and in life. However, how these traits are developed—and if they are developed at all—comes down to the classic question of nature versus nurture: how much our development is based on our genetic predisposition and how much is based on our environment.

"In my opinion," Tough says in the interview, "it is much more nurture than we think." While many of us tend to believe that these characteristics are part of our genetic makeup from birth—and Tough admits that genes do indeed play a role in one's development—there are cases when a child's environment is so difficult that his or her genetic makeup doesn't get a chance to flourish. He says that some studies have shown that genes and environment are equally responsible for a child's development, while there are some cases where nurture is far more important due to the extreme conditions—either positive or negative—of a child's upbringing. "It remains a big debate," he says, but he adds that what he is focused on in his research is the important role of environment and family relationships. "If we want more equality of opportunity, even if that doesn't necessarily mean equality of outcome, we have to figure out what are the obstacles to that opportunity—and so many of those obstacles are taking place in families."

"The amazing thing about a close relationship with an adult," he continues, "is that it insulates that child from a lot of problems [in their environment]." He says that children who grow up with a nurturing relationship with a parent or guardian are more equipped to overcome adversity in a positive way, rather than negatively. His breakthrough research and eye-opening talks explore new ways of thinking about how we can raise our children to be the best that they can be. While a lot of learning takes place in schools, Tough says there is a great deal of developmental learning that happens before a child walks through a school door—and nurturing and supporting that child through good times and bad will help prepare them to do better in life.