Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Licking and Grooming....Not just for Rats!

I am going to use Paul Tough's new book HOW CHILDREN SUCCEED, Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character  as the reason why this blog post is late.

I am hooked on every word!  It is not a long book, but it is thick with data, science, long term studies and provocative thought.

It seems rather ironic that I am reading it just when so many school kids and teachers are hunkered down under the pressure of state and federally mandated testing because this book.... and here I paraphrase the book jacket ...... 'challenges the story we usually tell about childhood .... that success comes to those who score highest on tests.  In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter have more to do with character skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control.'

Reading that alone made me want to shout AMEN. During my career in the classroom we knew (but only anecdotally and subjectively) about the need to develop character right alongside teaching math, history, geography and the five paragraph essay ... but to think that this book might offer proof through careful scientific data and long term study, plus ways to use this knowledge to transform young people's lives, our schools, our parenting and especially to improve the lives of children growing up in poverty - this has me stoked...and hooked.  At least that's what I hope this book is going to tell us....but I'm not there yet - only about sixty fascinating, underlined, dog-eared pages into it.

 I expect several blog posts to bubble up out of all the wonderings this powerful book is bringing up for me.  Here is the first one.....

We were on a family vacation recently (that, more likely, is the real reason for the tardy blog post).  We have a wonderful new baby grandson and on this trip I watched my daughter in law .... at every feeding, diaper change, or free moment ... kiss and nuzzle his sweet two month old face, pick at every piece of lint or dry skin on his round growing body, rub his soft bald head, or simply hold those little fingers that wrapped around hers.  Now it pains me to put our wonderful cherubic grandchildren (or my lovely DIL)  in the same paragraph with rats but Paul Tough talks in this book about studies with rats (led by neuroscientist, Michael Meany) done to expand our understanding of the relationship between parenting and childhood stress. Rat mothers (dams) were observed licking and grooming their offspring (pups) when the pups were returned to the cage following testing, in order to lower the stress hormones that become elevated when they are out of the cage exposed to the rigors of the tests and human handling.  Of course, they observed rat moms who were big L and G-ers (as the scientists termed them) and rat moms who weren't as much. So they decided to set up regular observations to keep score of the  L and G time and then to see if there were any long-term effects of these parenting behaviors on the young rats.

When the rat 'pups' were fully grown, the researchers gave them a series of tests that compared the offspring of the high LG (licked and groomed)  rats with the low LG rats.  The specifics in the book are fascinating but suffice it to say, that on each test the high LG offspring excelled - better at mazes, more social, more curious, less aggressive, healthier, lower levels of stress hormones, more self-control, lived longer.   AND ...  the L and G did not have to come just from the biological mother to produce those effects!

Now perhaps this is more of a "DUH" than an "A-HA" for most, and daunting to anyone trying to assist and improve the lives of disadvantaged children, but here is what Paul Tough says....

           "We now know that early stress and adversity can literally get under a child's skin, where it can cause damage that lasts a lifetime.  But there is also some positive news in this research. It turns out that there is a particularly effective antidote to the ill effects of early stress, and it comes not from pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood educators but from parents.  Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment.  This message can sound a bit warm and fuzzy, but it is rooted in cold, hard science.  The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say, it is biochemical."

Today I am wondering how we as a society can help provide this necessary nurturing to all children.