Ours is a world of measurement. Do we measure up to others success and how can we measure our own? As parents, we can't help but rely on tests and grades to inform how successful our children are at school at what implications that has for life success.

But what if the most important indicator of your child's success couldn't be measured by a test?

That's exactly what University of Chicago professor James Heckman, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in economics, believes.

Heckman told NPR that he has been tracking and studying the children who went through the Perry Preschool Project, started in 1963. The two-year program focused on two core components.

First, it focused more on building a child's social and emotional skills than test scores. Kids would plan, execute, and review tasks collectively, like building and painting a toy boat, working on their communication skills as they collaborated. Social interaction would be further enhanced by expanding the children's awareness of the outside world. They'd take trips to the airport to watch planes take off and to better understand society around them.

Second, the parents were actively enrolled in creating a warm learning environment at home for the children. Parents were encouraged to read and play with their kids -- decidedly not the norm in an era where IQ and test scores were the be-all-to-end-all.

So what was the end game of this project? What were they honing that was more important than test scores for a child's success?

Character.

Heckman says the school focused on multiple aspects of character building, like how to stay on task, communicate, work with others, control emotions, deal with failure and persevere, be open to new experiences, and even delay gratification. All the child's activities were built around developing these important character traits.

But what influence did this work have on the child's success, years later?

The early effort on character building had remarkable results.

Heckman has studied the Perry Preschool Project kids (and their kids) and compared them to hosts of children at the same time who did not go through the unique program. The results he described to NPR are remarkable (edited for brevity): "The Perry kids were far more likely to graduate high school, much more likely to go on to college, had much higher lifetime earnings, were much less likely to commit crime, and were much healthier."

Heckman saw the same patterns in the kids of the Perry kids. All of this from two years focusing on nurturing a child's character over worrying about maxing out IQ and test scores.  

Heckman confirmed the finding in a study of GED recipients (Graduate Equivalency Diploma). He found no difference in test scores between those who got their GED and those who graduated from high school. But the GED'ers, who had dropped out of high school and were often raised in unsupportive, non-character building environments, went on to struggle with their careers and relationships far more and were far more likely to commit crimes.

Fostering the Perry Preschool findings is all about character.

Tests are important too -- I don't want to implicate otherwise. As with many things in parenting (and in life), it's about balance.

Spend as much time with your kids on character building traits as you do helping them study for their algebra exam. Find out what character building activities are core to the school your child attends. My daughter attends a school where each year they focus on building one value in particular, like trust, honesty, or courage, and my wife and I try to support the theme at home. I'm not saying my daughter's school, her, or my wife and I have it all figured out, by any means. But I know the effort of all involved is intentional.

Do we worry about academics and test scores? Darn right we do. But I'll be the first to admit that I draw more joy when my daughter kicks tail on a values-based, life test that comes her way than when she crushes an English test. We try to reinforce those wins just as much as the academic ones.

Character. Investing to build your child's will build your own. And it's easier than faking your ability to help on that geometry stuff.

Published on: Jun 17, 2019
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