Moms N More--Fall 2014 Introduction (MNM 1)

Fourteen years ago, my husband, Tommy, and I took our first, tentative steps into parenthood when we brought home our son, Case.  Only a few months later, we were more than a little surprised to learn that a daughter was on her way.  Callie Jo arrived seventeen months after Case’s birth, and what followed was the season of life you are now in the midst of—the sweet-but-sleep-deprived season of mothering young children.  During those years, I attended Fellowship Church's Moms N More group just as you are now, and I’m so grateful for the women who encouraged me along that stretch of the journey.

Fast forward a decade or so, and my children were making their way through elementary school.  At that time, I was offered an invitation to return to full-time teaching, which I accepted.  That was four years ago, and I continue to serve on English faculty at Pellissippi State Community College, where I enjoy the opportunity to invest some of my time and energy into the lives of my students and colleagues. 

Recently, one of those co-workers, my friend Heather, recommended Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character *.  Heather’s suggestion came during one of our many conversations about mothering, teaching, or both.   We talk regularly about a dilemma we face all too often:  students who possess tremendous potential, but who struggle to practice the strategies and behaviors which will allow them to achieve their academic and life goals.  As teachers, we are constantly seeking out new ways to facilitate our students’ academic growth.  And as mothers, we want to nurture the kinds of traits that will allow our children to become the individuals they were created to be—to live out their unique, divinely-crafted identity in the fullest and most fulfilling way possible.

Always intrigued by Heather’s ideas, I listened to the audio version of Tough’s book.  His theory is this:  Most people believe that a person’s intelligence is what leads to his or her academic and life success; however, research shows that traits such as grit, perseverance, and resilience are far more crucial to one’s success than his or her IQ.  In short, the importance of a person’s non-cognitive traits greatly outweighs his or her cognitive ability.

Tough refers to this idea as the character hypothesis, and his writing puts words around ideas I’ve been contemplating for much of my teaching career.   Because I teach courses in English composition, my classes are often filled with students who either don’t like to write, or who believe they simply can’t write.   Yet because written communication is so vital to success in the workplace, English composition is required of all college students, regardless of their confidence or natural ability.  And so I encourage them with regular reminders that their willingness to work diligently will benefit them as much or more than being “smart.”   In other words, it’s not their cognitive ability, but their non-cognitive behaviors—characteristics like perseverance, for example—which will allow them to successfully complete the course.  Since these are the kinds of conversations I’ve been having with my students, Tough’s ideas weren’t terribly surprising.

What is surprising, though, is his discussion about which children tend to be deficient in these character traits.  While some might associate a lack of non-cognitive ability with lower socio-economic status or coming from a single-parent home, Tough argues that children from affluent and two-parent families are equally as likely to lack these all-important traits.  In other words, just because a child comes from a stable, middle-class home doesn’t guarantee that s/he possesses what is necessary for achieving his or her academic and life goals. 

Similarly, it’s not unusual for my more affluent students to struggle just as much (if not more) with their college level work than classmates whose families provide less economic stability.  And so Tough’s assertions parallel my experience as a teacher:  regardless of whether or not an individual’s background involves economic or familial stability, s/he stands a pretty good chance of lacking the traits so vital to thriving in school, in work, and in life.

These non-cognitive traits fall under a variety of headings:  soft skills, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, or even character.  Regardless of the label, experts from a variety of fields are expressing concern about what seems to be a growing trend:

From kindergarten to college, many of today’s youth 
seem to possess only the most meager supply 
of the traits and behaviors so integral 
to their thriving in school and in life.

As a result, many (including Paul Tough) are lobbying for educational reform to address the issue.  However, in order to exercise these traits in school, children must have had adequate opportunities to practice and develop these skills before starting school.  And where do these opportunities occur?  Mostly at home.  Who creates the majority of these opportunities?  Parents.

This is why so many experts are calling for parents to be more intentional about nurturing their children’s non-cognitive traits.  As a teacher and a mother, I wholeheartedly agree.  

My encounter with Tough’s book has brought me to a new and sobering understanding about the vital role that all parents play—starting with my husband and me—in preparing our children for life beyond our home.  And so I’ve spent the past eighteen months embarked on a quest to learn more about these non-cognitive traits--—things like perseverance, enthusiasm, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity.  I’ve also done lots of thinking about ways to cultivate these traits in my children, my students, and myself. 

This means I’ve talked about this topic with just about everyone I know—colleagues, students, and friends.   One such conversation prompted Rebekah Wilson's gracious invitation to share what I’m learning with you—the mothers who are part of Moms N More.   I’ve had the joy of working closely with her as well as a handful of other amazing folks, and I’m so grateful for their willingness to help me prepare this material, which I hope will be helpful and informative. 

Please know I consider it an honor to pass along anything that might encourage you during this wonderful-challenging-exhilarating-exhausting season of mothering young lives, and I’m looking forward to all we will learn together in this study.

And if you're ready for the next part of the introduction, click here.

Anne Pharr @ shadowwonder


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