How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Why do some children succeed while others fail?

The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence: success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs.

But in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter most have more to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.

How Children Succeed introduces us to a new generation of researchers and educators who, for the first time, are using the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of character. Through their stories—and the stories of the children they are trying to help—Tough traces the links between childhood stress and life success. He uncovers the surprising ways in which parents do—and do not—prepare their children for adulthood. And he provides us with new insights into how to help children growing up in poverty.

Early adversity, scientists have come to understand, can not only affect the conditions of children’s lives, it can alter the physical development of their brains as well. But now educators and doctors around the country are using that knowledge to develop innovative interventions that allow children to overcome the constraints of poverty. And with the help of these new strategies, as Tough’s extraordinary reporting makes clear, children who grow up in the most painful circumstances can go on to achieve amazing things.

This provocative and profoundly hopeful book has the potential to change how we raise our children, how we run our schools, and how we construct our social safety net. It will not only inspire and engage readers, it will also change our understanding of childhood itself.

Q&A with Paul Tough

Paul Tough

Q. What made you want to write How Children Succeed?

A. In 2008, I published my first book, Whatever It Takes, about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. I spent five years reporting that book, but when I finished it, I realized I still had a lot of questions about what really happens in childhood. How Children Succeed is an attempt to answer those questions, which for many of us are big and mysterious and central in our lives: Why do certain children succeed while other children fail? Why is it, exactly, that poor children are less likely to succeed, on average, than middle-class children? And most important, what can we all do to steer more kids toward success?

Q. Where did you go to find the answers?

A. My reporting for this book took me all over the country, from a pediatric clinic in a low-income San Francisco neighborhood to a chess tournament in central Ohio to a wealthy private school in New York City. And what I found as I reported was that there is a new and groundbreaking conversation going on, out of the public eye, about childhood and success and failure. It is very different than the traditional education debate. There are economists working on this, neuroscientists, psychologists, medical doctors. They are often working independently from one another. They don’t always coordinate their efforts. But they’re beginning to find some common ground, and together they’re reaching some interesting and important conclusions.

Q. A lot of your reporting for this book was in low-income neighborhoods. Overall, what did you learn about kids growing up in poverty?

A. A lot of what we think we know about the effect of poverty on a child’s development is just plain wrong. It’s certainly indisputable that growing up in poverty is really hard on children. But the conventional wisdom is that the big problem for low-income kids is that they don’t get enough cognitive stimulation early on. In fact, what seems to have more of an effect is the chaotic environments that many low-income kids grow up in and the often stressful relationships they have with the adults around them. That makes a huge difference in how children’s brains develop, and scientists are now able to trace a direct route from those early negative experiences to later problems in school, health, and behavior.

The problem is that science isn’t yet reflected in the way we run our schools and operate our social safety net. And that’s a big part of why so many low-income kids don’t do well in school. We now know better than ever what kind of help they need to succeed in school. But very few schools are equipped to deliver that help.

Q. Many readers were first exposed to your reporting on character through your article in the New York Times Magazine in September 2011, which was titled “What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?” How does failure help us succeed?

A. That’s an idea that I think was best expressed by Dominic Randolph, the head of the Riverdale Country School, an exclusive private school in the Bronx where they’re now doing some interesting experiments with teaching character. Here’s how he put it: “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

That idea resonated with a lot of readers. I don’t think it’s quite true that failure itself helps us succeed. In fact, repeated failures can be quite devastating to a child’s development. What I think is important on the road to success is learning to deal with failure, to manage adversity. That’s a skill that parents can certainly help their children develop–but so can teachers and coaches and mentors and neighbors and lots of other people.

Q. How did writing this book affect you as a parent?

A. My wife and I became parents for the first time just as I started reporting this book, and our son Ellington is now three. Those are crucial years in a child’s development, and I spent a lot of them reading papers on the infant brain and studies on attachment and trauma and stress hormones, trying not to get too overwhelmed.

In the end, though, this research had a surprising effect: it made me more relaxed as a parent. When Ellington was born, I was very much caught up in the idea of childhood as a race–the faster a child develops skills, the better he does on tests, the better he’ll do in life. Having done this reporting, I’m less concerned about my son’s reading and counting ability. Don’t get me wrong, I still want him to know that stuff. But I think he’ll get there in time. What I’m more concerned about is his character–or whatever the right synonym is for character when you’re talking about a three-year-old. I want him to be able to get over disappointments, to calm himself down, to keep working at a puzzle even when it’s frustrating, to be good at sharing, to feel loved and confident and full of a sense of belonging. Most important, I want him to be able to deal with failure.

That’s a difficult thing for parents to give their children, since we have deep in our DNA the urge to shield our kids from every kind of trouble. But what we’re finding out now is that in trying to protect our children, we may actually be harming them. By not giving them the chance to learn to manage adversity, to cope with failure, we produce kids who have real problems when they grow up. Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.

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3 Comments so far »

  1. Graham Scharf said,

    Wrote on April 2, 2013 @ 7:03 pm

    123 of 130 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    The power of early parenting, environment in cyclical poverty, September 11, 2012
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    This review is from: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Hardcover)

    Following the footsteps of Jonathan Kozol, Paul Tough employs his significant storytelling abilities to help readers see and feel the plight of children, families and communities trapped in cycles of failure and poverty. How Children Succeed challenges some conventional wisdom on causes of failure (poverty, teacher quality) and contends that nurturing character in children and young adults is the key to success. As a former NYC Teaching Fellow who has lived and worked in multiple communities of cyclical poverty, I’m convinced that Tough has nailed some critical pieces of breaking those cycles.

    Here is the argument in brief:
    ==============================
    There exists in our society a troubling and growing achievement gap between the have and the have-nots. The cause of that gap is neither merely poverty nor IQ, but a specific set of non-cognitive skills including executive function and conscientiousness, which Tough calls “character.” Children who acquire these skills can break historic cyclical patterns of failure.

    Malleability of Character and Intelligence
    ==========================================
    Whereas IQ is hardly malleable, executive function and character strengths – specifically grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity and conscientiousness – are far more malleable. These skills are better predictors of academic performance and educational achievement than IQ and therefore ought to be the direct target of interventions.

    Attachment and Lifelong Health
    ==============================
    Tough sees two key areas of influence for those who care for those trapped in cycles of poverty. The first is secure early attachment to parents. “The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical” (28). Specifically, children who experience high levels of stress but NOT responsive and nurturing parents suffer from a range of lifelong health and mental health issues. However, “When mothers scored high on measures of responsiveness, the impact of those environmental factors on their children seemed to almost disappear” (32). Tough cites one study in which “early parental care predicted which students would graduate even more reliably than IQ or achievement test scores” (36). Importantly, interventions that focus on promoting stronger parent-child relationships in high risk groups (including one in which just 1 of 137 infants studied demonstrated secure attachment at the outset) have shown promising impact. Of the 137 children in the study, 61% of those in the treatment group formed secure attachment by age 2, compared with only 2% of the control group.

    Adolescent Character Formation
    ==============================
    Paul Tough highlights the work of school and support programs that intentionally focus on forming the character strength habits that enable children to learn well in schools, form healthy relationships, and avoid the destructive decisions and behavior patterns modeled in their communities. Here, too, Tough sees a ray of hope. Just as early intervention with parents and young children yields wide ranging benefits for families in poverty, so character interventions in adolescence can and do enable young adults surrounded by cycles of poverty to learn self-control, perseverance and focus that are critical for escaping the gravitational pull of their communities.

    Why You Should Read This Book
    =============================
    Paul Tough is tackling one of the most challenging – and contentious – issues of our time. His analysis will offend those who tend to blame poverty predominantly on the irresponsible choices of the poor by showing just how powerful the cyclical, environmental pressures are on children raised in these communities. His work is just as challenging to those who think that those trapped in cycles of poverty are mere victims of their environment who bear no responsibility for their decisions. Tough shows compellingly that parents and children in poverty can and do overcome the powerful environmental forces of their communities – and that this is a beautiful and essential component of breaking cyclical poverty. His call is for those with education and influence – the kinds of people who read books like his – to demonstrate motivation and volition (two components of character formation he extols) to recognize, celebrate, and nurture the character of children and families in poverty.

    Graham Scharf
    Author, The Apprenticeship of Being Human: Why Early Childhood Parenting Matters to Everyone
    […]

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  2. Dienne said,

    Wrote on April 2, 2013 @ 7:06 pm

    435 of 481 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Is “character” the answer?, July 27, 2012
    By 
    Dienne (Cicero, IL) –
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    This review is from: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Hardcover)
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    Paul Tough sets out to answer a rather heady question in a rather slim 200 pages: what makes children succeed? To his credit, Tough packs in a dense barrage of different perspectives (economic, social, psychological, and medical) and he supports his points well with ample research. The resulting book is interesting reading and provides a great deal of food for thought. I appreciate Tough’s contribution, but I have to quibble with some of his conclusions.

    Tough begins his book talking about the rise of cognitive interventions in early childhood. Ever since some studies showed some positive effects of various kinds of early childhood stimulation, parents have rushed to play Mozart for their developing fetuses, companies have marketed products guaranteed to get your baby reading, and competition for the “best” preschools has become a blood sport. But Tough argues that these interventions, while well intentioned, are ultimately misguided. While cognitive skills are certainly important, and early stimulation can boost these skills somewhat, there may be a different, over-arching set of skill which may be more important to overall success in life. These skills are the non-cognitive skills commonly grouped under the rubric of “character”.

    As Tough dives into the meat of his exploration, he opens with a look at the negative effects of poverty, its correlations with trauma and adverse childhood events (abuse, witnessing violence, neglect, malnutrition, etc.), and how these factors affect an individual through his life – cognitively, emotionally and even physically. He explores attachment theory and the role of attachment in soothing and undoing the effects of early adverse events. I found this chapter fascinating, as I have long felt that trauma is one of the root causes of so many societal problems. If we could only figure out how to prevent and heal trauma, the gains – educational, creative, productive, social, etc. – would be astounding. Tragically, it seems instead that we are hell-bent on increasing trauma, our increasingly violent movies, television and news media being but some examples thereof. I had hoped that Tough would explore this area more in depth.

    Tough, however, swerves into a detour and begins building his argument for “character”. He acknowledges that there are many different definitions of “character” and disagreements about what should or shouldn’t be included. Some definitions include more religious/”moral” values such as chastity or piety, while others strive for more universal values such as honesty and integrity. But what Tough seems to mean by “character” (although he himself does not always apply the term consistently) has to do with practical values that help people succeed: the ability to work hard toward a goal and stick to it in the face of adversity and setbacks, the ability to rebound after failure, the inclination to do one’s best even in the absence of obvious external rewards, the ability to delay gratification.

    Tough spends a good deal of time comparing and contrasting the KIPP charter school program with an elite, expensive private school in New York: Riverdale Country School. The schools are almost polar opposites demographically. KIPP is a free, public, open-enrollment charter school which selects students by lottery. The majority of the students are poor and minority. Riverdale, by contrast, is highly selective and enrollment fees start at $38,000. The student body is exclusively rich and nearly all white.

    But the two schools have very similar missions: to prepare their students for college and give them the tools for success, including “character” tools (both programs define character in the wider sense of social values as well as Tough’s characteristics). The differences in demographics, however, mean that this mission is often carried out in very different ways. Riverdale kids almost universally come from homes with two college educated professional parents, and their own college/professional destiny has been part of the air they’ve breathed since infancy. KIPP students, by contrast, are not nearly as likely to have college educated parents and have not been prepared for college – in fact, many may be actively dissuaded from college and may have barriers in qualifying for, applying for, paying for and succeeding at college.

    In Tough’s view, the challenge for the Riverdale students is often “character” issues, particularly those directly relating to success, such as grit, perseverance, and resilience. They come from a secure safety net which they know will always be there. They often find getting good grades and getting along with teachers easy, so they coast in school and don’t develop the skills necessary to succeed. The trick for them, Tough argues, is being allowed to fail and having to get back up on their own, but this is often inhibited by “helicopter” parents…

    Read more

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  3. HeatherHH said,

    Wrote on April 2, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

    53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Very interesting and enjoyable reading. Mainly philosophical, very little how to., August 13, 2012
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    This review is from: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Hardcover)
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    Why do some children succeed in life and others do not? Why does a bright child end up a failure as an adult while a more average student ends up a success? Paul Tough says that the answer is character. Traits like self-control, diligence, and perseverance are better predictors of success in life than IQ. In fact, those who are especially bright, may be set up for failure as they become used to everything in school coming easily to them, and are ill-prepared for the difficulties of the “real world.”

    I found the book absolutely fascinating, both informative and enjoyable to read. The book is full of research and example to make the author’s point. It does a wonderful job demonstrating that character does matter and is as essential for a child to learn as any academic subject. This is not, however, a how-to book that goes into great detail about how to instill these traits in your children/students.

    One of the groups that the author focuses on significantly is those of low socioeconomic status. He makes the case, convincingly, that the main problem that they have to overcome is the stressful circumstances of their childhood, such as violence, broken homes, etc. Most find themselves significantly impaired by the constant strain of their early environment. Yet those with close supportive relationships with their caregiver(s) and the opportunity to develop key character traits are able to rise above their circumstances.

    The author also focuses on a low-income school in NYC that produces champion chess teams. Children who manage to apply themselves and become national masters are obviously bright. And yet it doesn’t translate into test scores, which show them to be woefully behind their peers. I was saddened to see the national master in middle school who couldn’t locate entire continents on a map or name a single European country. I felt that child was cheated by the hours a day spent on chess that could have been spent helping him to gain a basic education so that he can function in the world post-graduation. Still, the fact that someone so disadvantaged could achieve so much in one arena, shows what perseverance and diligence can reap.

    Overall, this is an interesting book that makes a very good case that it is absolutely critical for children to develop character traits like curiosity, perseverance, etc. It’s fascinating reading, even if I already agreed with that conclusion. Just don’t expect a how-to book with 5 key steps to implement in your classroom or home.

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