March 29, 2023
When the Covid-19 pandemic began, it was difficult to find an article about adolescence that didn’t mention the uptick in anxiety among young people, including those in middle school. These writers identified the causes of anxiety: the rise of the smartphone, the divisive nature of social media, and the global pandemic itself, and then noted how anxiety was causing harm to children’s self-confidence and self-worth.
More recently, however, I’ve noticed a paradigm shift in discussions about anxiety. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary’s recently published book Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad) provides an illustrative example. Making the case for a new mindset, she urges readers to leverage anxiety and grow from it while “reclaiming anxiety as our friend and ally.” Her book prompted me to listen to Oliver Burkeman’s book, The Power of Negative Thinking. Like Dennis-Tiwary, Burkeman claims that experiencing negative thoughts, such as fear and anxiety, is simply a part of being human and that normalizing such feelings can actually help us find more joy and success in our lives.
As a middle school head at an independent school, I’ve seen well-intentioned parents do all that they can to eliminate their children’s anxious feelings. Such people, popularly coined “snowplow parents,” create smooth paths that deny their children opportunities to grapple with life’s inevitable roadblocks and learn from failure. Their approach can unwittingly make their children more anxious.
A turning point in my own evolving thinking on this issue involved my encounter several years ago with Paul Tough’s ground-breaking book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, in which he offers excellent advice for educators and parents when it comes to building resilience in children. Tough wrote the book in 2012, but it’s gained new resonance in a moment when anxious kids need tools more than ever.
According to Tough, the grit our kids need to become more resilient is the result of character development rather than a matter of IQ. That’s good news because it’s hard to improve IQ after age eight. But executive functions, including an ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions, can be dramatically improved through the teen years and even into adulthood. The bottom line: Tough sees adolescence as a hopeful time, during which character development can trigger substantial and lasting transformation.
What does Tough mean by “character”? Non-cognitive skills such as self-discipline, optimism, social intelligence, resourcefulness, and curiosity. Citing grit guru Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Tough argues that character skills not only increase personal resilience but are also highly predictive of academic success.
Duckworth studied 8th graders at a middle school in Philadelphia. Giving them assessments that measured, respectively, their IQ and self-discipline, Duckworth found that self-discipline scores were the better predictor of final GPAs. The clincher? She also found that character skills like self-discipline can be taught, practiced, and learned.
But here’s the sobering news. Tough also found that teaching character skills to privileged children can be more difficult. Understandably wanting their kids to excel, Tough discovered that many affluent parents were inadvertently denying their kids the kind of experiences that can lead to character growth. When parents ask teachers to change grades or request an extension on a late paper, for example, their actions risk forfeiting their children’s opportunity to learn some hard lessons. Tough succinctly describes “a central paradox of contemporary parenting”: “we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.” If we allow children to navigate smaller problems themselves, they can develop the skills and practice they’ll need when a significant problem comes their way.
Duckworth suggests that we can further assist children’s efforts to develop such problem-solving skills by recognizing the relationship between habit-forming rules and character. Unlike IQ, habits can be changed and improved throughout one’s life. Rules, she and Tough suggest, help promote such change.
Rules can be internalized as character-forming habits in as little as one month. For a middle school student, rules that address self-discipline and focus could be about time limits on electronic devices. Or about getting ten hours of sleep each night. Or about keeping an assignment notebook. Or about setting aside time each evening for reading — viewed not as a punishment, but as a treat. Reading helps build literacy skills, but it’s also a form of meditation.
After students practice good habits, those habits become a default response that’s easier to follow. Most importantly, having a default response to novel situations means that students can address a new source of anxiety by falling back upon established routines. This reduces stress.
Good habits have lasting effects. They shape one’s character and help determine one’s destiny. It’s important to remember, however, that good habits are not the same as achievements, like getting an A, making a jump shot, or securing the lead in the school play. Instead, they’re the practices students employ in their approach to schoolwork, athletics, and theater, that prepare them to play leading roles on the world’s stage. Think of habits as processes rather than products. Middle school is, for example, a precious and invaluable time when students are still discovering who they are and what they value, and putting strong habits of mind in place. These habits are more life-changing and lasting than any single achievement. Knowing that these habits build grit and resilience in our age of anxiety makes developing them more important than ever.
Such an approach to building character, grit, and resilience can help children leverage their anxious feelings and move through them rather than around their feelings. As adults, we need to normalize anxiety and teach children the strategies and habits they need to respond to it in healthy ways. Doing so will, paradoxically, lower anxiety levels, which is similar to us accepting the fact that we cannot always expect to be happy might actually make us happier. To err is human, after all. To lovingly forgive ourselves and others for such failures is, as the adage goes, divine; it means accepting and loving ourselves for the inevitably flawed but still remarkable people we are and can yet become.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Elaine Griffin on Intrepid Ed News.