It is an anxious era in American parenting, and at the root of that anxiety is an idea called the cognitive hypothesis. The cognitive hypothesis is a rarely-spoken-aloud belief that what a child needs to succeed in life depends almost totally on cognitive skill. Cognitive skill, as opposed to life skill, is the kind of skill that allegedly gets measured on IQ tests. It is a widely held parental belief that the best way to practice cognitive skills is to practice them as soon and as often as possible.
While the cognitive hypothesis is undeniably soothing to many parents, a large and disparate group of economists, teachers, psychologists, and neuroscientists have started to produce evidence that the cognitive hypothesis is of less importance to children in life than a second set of skills, a set that includes persistence, self-control, conscienciousness, grit, and self-confidence. Psychologists call this second set of skills personality traits, educators call them life skills, but most of the world calls them character.
The person at the center of this new way of thinking is James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago and Nobel Prize winner in 2000 for economics. He has been, in recent years, running an invitation-only conference of psychologists and economists with one idea as its focus: which skills and traits lead to success, how do they develop in children, and what kind of interventions might be developed to help children learn these skills and traits more easily?
So how can parents help their children develop life skills like motivation, perserverance, and self-confidence? The traditional route taken with cognitive skills- start earlier and work harder- doesn’t apply to life skills. Instead, it appears that the most important thing that parents can do to help their children develop noncognitive skills, or character, is to do nothing. We parents have to learn to let our children fail, to face some problems without being helped up.
This current generation of children, more than any other, is being helped through the educational system without having to face real adversity on their own, and that is what builds character. We are doing our children a disservice if we offer them all the help that we can, all the time. This goes against our parental grain, but letting our children struggle some will actually help them develop the life skills they will need in the future.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.