Book Review: How Children Succeed

3 Jan

Paul Tough writes about character and childhood in the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, as well as contributing to The New York Times and This American Life.  He came out with a book a few months ago How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. It’s a fast read, full of stories that tug on the heartstrings and research that convinces the brain.


What Tough does in his book is to start at the beginning, with babies, and discuss what factors in their lives lead to success in childhood and adulthood.  Tough makes a strong case for how stressful home environments set children up for a life of hardship.  He goes through an array of research that is both fascinating and familiar to any undergrad psych major: Sapolsky’s work on stress, Mary Ainsworth’s research on attachment parenting, the Stanford  Marshmallow experiment and delayed gratification.  The book progresses through a child’s years in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, looking at qualities beyond the cognitive that help some children to succeed despite the decks stacked against them.

There were a few aspects of Tough’s book that I found especially appealing.  The first is his comparison of a high performing private school with a KIPP charter school when discussing the new emphasis on “performance” character education (educating for traits such as persistence and grit vs. “moral” character traits such as kindness and honesty.)  Tough discusses the reason this character education was considered important for both sets of children, which I found more intuitively appealing than the “these kids need something different than other kids” argument you sometimes see.

I also appreciated his discussion of charter schools such as KIPP.  So often we hear about charters through a haze of absolutes, such as, “charters will destroy public education,” “charters are actually creating for-profit institutions in place of public education,” or conversely, “charters are flexible and dynamic in ways that will save the struggling youth of America,” or “teachers in charters care vs. those union lackeys in public ed.”   Tough shares both the positives he sees at schools like KIPP, and the things that worry him, but he never falls headlong into adulation or demonization.

Finally, I particularly identified with the end of the book, which addressed the idea that we have combined the war on poverty with education.  Education is now seen as the remedy to poverty, and Tough points out that while education is certainly a key factor in breaking the cycle of poverty, it cannot stand alone.  Health centers that can combat the stress of living in acute poverty, parenting classes that can strengthen attachment, learning centers that can teach executive functioning skills–these could make a real difference if they were coordinated and well-run.

Maybe the most optimistic part of Tough’s book is the idea that character traits, like gratitude and grit, can be taught and nurtured.  The idea that character is malleable allows for the kind of growth mindset that can lead to promising change in the future, for both children and society.

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