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How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character Paperback – July 2, 2013
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Q&A with 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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
While it has interesting quotes and studies, it is not prescriptive, which is what our reading group wanted. Read morePublished 1 hour ago by Amazon Customer
This book touches on "emerging" neuroscience data about the brain, mind, and our success as adults. It reveals many if the failures of our educational system, but ends in a hopeful... Read morePublished 5 days ago by Jonathan Ling
"Kids worded very hard but never ,ale difficult decision or confront a real challenge. So enter an adult world bring competent but lost" very impressive by this wordPublished 1 month ago by Lu Xiong Hui
Interesting science but I found myself skipping over pages and chapters. The author could have made his point more concisely but instead goes on and on about chess, for example.Published 1 month ago by Erin Wright
Too long of a book, it's interesting but goes into depth beyond depth. I couldn't get through it! And I always finish books. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Annie Skidmore
I enjoyed the valuable information, wish it had a practical conclusion of decisive points and strategies to take into account.Published 1 month ago by Lourdes Ferragut