Character and Child Development

Having recently returned from the Philippines, planning our 2013 High Five Hope events in Davao, Cebu, and Manila, I was reflecting on a great book I read during my travels, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character.  The research and lessons in this book directly relate to our mission at High Five Hope.  The book challenges the perceptions about what really matters in child development.  The author, Paul Tough, contends that the qualities that matter most for children and success have more to do with character: abilities like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, self-discipline and optimism.

Sound familiar?  Well if you are familiar with the five values of High Five Hope – teamwork, well-being, honesty, commitment, respect – you’ll see the correlation to Paul Tough’s research.  One of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Habit and character are essentially the same thing … It’s not like some kids are good and some kids are bad.  Some kids have good habits and some have bad habits.  Kids understand it when you put it that way because they know that habits might be hard to change, but they’re not impossible to change.”

I think this speaks to the very core of our mission to serve kids in need – this is all about hope.  Kids know they can get better, they know they can improve their lives, and what we do with High Five Hope is to create the opportunity for kids to practice this.

Over the past years we’ve seen this really work.  We’ve seen “bad” kids improve their lives, find legitimate jobs, finish school, and get scholarships in some cases.  I do not believe in the concept of a “bad kid” – I believe everyone’s character has the opportunity to change.  Even those children ‘at the margin’, kids suffering in extreme poverty, homelessness and abuse.  Thankfully, a bunch of actual scientists in this book agreed 🙂

“For many of us, character refers to something innate and unchanging, a core set of attributes that define one’s very essence.  Seligman and Peterson defined character in a different way: a set of abilities or strengths that are very much changeable – entirely malleable, in fact.  They are skills you can learn; they are skills you can practice; and they are skills you can teach.”

It is reassuring frankly, to read an acclaimed and recognized book, with sound research, that supports our design intent behind High Five Hope.

But it’s also important to recognize that it’s the collective effort of what we do — from the program, to the volunteers, to the partners, to the coaches — that allows us to make a positive impact.

I was reminded of this in another book I frequently re-read, InsideOut Coaching, there’s a quote that similarly supports the importance of sports, specifically the role of the coach, in helping to develop children in a positive and powerful way:

“Outside of parenting there might not be a better platform than coaching to transform boys and girls into healthy and thriving men and women.”

But the author, Joe Ehrmann (a truly remarkable person), is clear to point out that:

“Sports may be the perfect venue in which to build character.  But sports don’t build character unless a coach possesses character and intentionally teaches it”

This is an important point and the role of the coach is crucial, particularly in our program since our coaches are not only there to instruct and teach about a given sport, but to encourage, connect, affirm, empathize and inspire the H5H kids with the right values.

This Fall I will be re-writing our ‘Coaches Training Kit’ for High Five Hope, taking the learnings of our past five years and incorporating these lessons and experience into how to use every practice, every game, every opportunity we have with the H5H kids to deliver the core values of our program.  Which in turn will help the kids to build the right habits, a strong character and a solid foundation of hope, to boost their lives in a positive direction.

At our H5H Summer Hope Festival in Davao this year, I thought the headline of the Mindanao Times article on the right (we were the front page story!) captures this perfectly.  It’s more – much more – than just sports.


I’m so proud of how far we have come, of the hundreds of childrens lives we have impacted, and of the future we have before us.  And it impacts us all, not just the kids.  As the author James Baldwin eloquently said:

“For these are all our children. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”

Here’s to grit, to curiosity, to character and to the incredible potential for children to grow, to change and to leave their mark on the world.