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Upper East Side Moms Talk Childhood Development With Author Paul Tough

By DNAinfo Staff on October 24, 2012 2:58pm

UPPER EAST SIDE — Paul Tough, a New York Times magazine writer and author of the recently released parenting guide "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character," has some advice for moms and dads: Act like a good rat.

At a discussion of his book Tuesday night at The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, located on Third Avenue at East 83rd Street, Tough told an inquisitive group of moms and several dads that laboratory studies of rats and their children sheds a lot of light on human childhood development.

Tough alluded to one study conducted in Montreal, which indicated that good rat moms "licked and groomed" their pups, he said. This behavior alleviated toxic stress in rat offspring and was correlated to healthier, longer-living baby rats, he said.

"I did not actually lick my son," Tough joked. 

He clarified that kids who experience the human equivalent of "licking and grooming" — those who are closely cared for early in childhood — tend to be well adjusted and successful later in life.

Tough, who made his remarks in front of several dozen members of the hugely popular networking organization Divalysscious Moms, explained that personality characteristics such as "grit," "curiosity" and "self control" are significant indicators of success — perhaps more so than IQ.

Tough concluded that the conventional parenting wisdom popular over the past few decades — including self-esteem inflation and attachment parenting — is "misguided."

So how does this relate to rats?

After early childhood, kids must learn to deal with stress without "licking and grooming," be it resolving conflicts in a sandbox or failing at chess.

In some cases, he said, "kids don't have enough [minor] adversity" to give them strong, stable personalities.

This means that when they come across big adversities later in life, they just can't deal, Tough added.

After Tough's talk, parents clamored to make use of his expertise, asking questions about everything from the death of grandparents to excess competitiveness in Little League.

"I have a 9-year-old who is a perfectionist," one mother lamented.

"Why isn't my son holding a crayon as good as other kids?" another father wondered.

Julie Adler, a mother of four, was particularly interested in birth order.

"He sounds very interesting and thought-provoking in the motherhood world," said Adler, who bought the book at Tuesday's event.

Asked whether he had experienced any backlash for advocating against the parental advice du jour, Tough told DNAinfo.com New York that he hadn't received pushback per se.

Rather, parents pressed him on implementation.

"When parents hear this message, it's not that they're arguing with the idea," he said. "I think it is more that in reality, we have trouble enacting it."