How Children Succeed: A book review by Bob Morris

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2012)

“Why do some children thrive while others lose their way?”

The question I selected as a title for this review is one of several to which Paul Tough responds in this book. The titles of the first four chapters suggest others: How to Fail (and How Not to), How to Build Character, How to Think, and finally, How to Succeed. According to an ancient Africa an aphorism, it takes a village to raise a child. In the Introduction, Tough briefly discusses several research studies whose findings have had a great impact on child development in the U.S. (especially in public schools), for better or worse. He asserts that “conventional wisdom about child development over the past two decades has been misguided. We have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children, and we have been using the wrong strategies to help nurture and teach those skills.” If it will take a society to develop a child, what specifically does Tough recommend? Where to begin?

No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of material that Tough provides, supplemented by 19 pages of extensively annotated notes. Also, those who have already reviewed the book have identified what they found most important, most valuable to them. Briefly, here are five of the several dozen passages that caught my eye:

“There is something undeniably compelling about the cognitive hypothesis [i.e. the number of words a child hears from parents early in life determines academic success later]. The world it describes is so neat, so reassuringly linear, such a clear case of inputs [begin italics] here [end italics] to outputs [begin italics] here [end italics].” However, in recent years, research conducted by individuals and teams raises questions about many of the assumptions behind the cognitive hypothesis. “What matters, instead [of stuffing information in a child’s head], is whether we can help that develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.” These are all non-cognitive skills. (Pages xiv-xv)

“Overloading the HPA axis, especially in infancy and childhood, produces all kinds of serious and long-lasting negative effects — physical, psychological, and neurological.” What’s tricky about this process is that “it’s not actually the stress itself that messes us up. It’s the body’s [begin italics] reaction [end italics] to the stress…Although the human stress-response system is highly complex in design, in practice it has all the subtlety of a croquet mallet…Your HPA axis, sensing danger, is conserving fluids, preparing to ward off an attack. And you’re standing there looking for a glass of water and swallowing hard.” The sense of threat is even more terrifying for a child. (Page 13)

For infants to develop qualities like perseverance and focus, “they need a high level of warmth and nurturance from their caregivers (e.g. parents, other family members, teachers, coaches, and clergy]…when children reach early adolescence, what motivates them most effectively isn’t licking and grooming-style care but a very different kind of attention. Perhaps what pushes middle school students to practice as maniacally as [Elizabeth] Spiegel’s chess players do is the unexpected experience of someone taking them seriously, believing in their abilities, and challenging them to improve themselves.” (120-121)

Neuroscientists have discovered that “the most reliable way to produce an adult who is brave and curious and kind and prudent is to ensure that when he is an infant, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis functions well. And how do you do that? It’s not magic. First, as much as possible, you protect him from serious trauma and chronic stress; then, even more important, you provide him with a secure, nurturing relationship with at least one parent and ideally two. That’s not the whole secret of success, but it is a big, big part of it.” (182)

Rather than making a case for the economic value of better-educated students who will add greater value to society, “the argument that resonates more with me is a purely personal one. When I spend time with children growing up in adversity, I can’t help but feel two things. First, a sense of anger for what they’ve already missed…Which leads to my second reaction: a feeling of admiration and hope when I watch young people making the difficult and often painful choice to follow a better path, to turn away from what might have seemed like their inevitable destiny…And every day they pull themselves up one more rung on the ladder to a more successful future…They did not get onto that ladder alone. They are there only because someone helped them to take the first step.”

I share Paul Tough’s hope that those who read his book will follow Elizabeth Siegel’s example by seizing every opportunity to provide children with “the unexpected experience of someone taking them seriously, believing in their abilities, and challenging them to improve themselves.” Help them to locate a “ladder” and then begin what is certain to be a difficult climb but one made somewhat easier by knowing they are not alone. In years to come, many of the young ladder climbers will then help other children to achieve success.

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