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

Paul Tough
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (616 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Debunking the conventional wisdom of the past few decades that disadvantaged children need to develop basic reading and counting skills before entering school, Tough argues that they would be better served by learning such skills as grit, conscientiousness, curiosity, and optimism. It boils down to a debate about precognitive versus noncognitive skills of self-regulation or, simply put, character. Tough (Whatever It Takes, 2008) spent two years interviewing students, teachers, and administrators at failing public schools, alternative programs, charter schools, elite schools, and a variety of after-school programs. He also interviewed psychologists, economists, and neuroscientists and examined the latest research on character education beyond the bromides of the Left and Right to discover what actually works in teaching children skills that will aid them in school and in life, whatever the circumstances of their childhoods. Most compelling are Tough’s portraits of adolescents from backgrounds rife with poverty, violence, drug-addicted parents, sexual abuse, and failing schools, who manage to gain skills that help them overcome their adversities and go on to college. Tough ultimately argues in favor of research indicating that these important skills can be learned and children’s lives saved. A very hopeful look at promising new research on education. --Vanessa Bush

Review

"Drop the flashcards - grit, character, and curiosity matter even more than cognitive skills. A persuasive wake-up call."
People Magazine

"In this absorbing and important book, Tough explains why American children from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum are missing out on these essential experiences. … The book illuminates the extremes of American childhood: for rich kids, a safety net drawn so tight it’s a harness; for poor kids, almost nothing to break their fall."
—Annie Murphy Paul, The New York Times Book Review

"An engaging book that casts the school reform debate in a provocative new light. … [Tough] introduces us to a wide-ranging cast of characters — economists, psychologists, and neuroscientists among them — whose work yields a compelling new picture of the intersection of poverty and education."
—Thomas Toch, The Washington Monthly

"Mr. Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, combines compelling findings in brain research with his own first-hand observations on the front lines of school reform. He argues that the qualities that matter most to children’s success have more to do with character – and that parents and schools can play a powerful role in nurturing the character traits that foster success. His book is an inspiration. It has made me less of a determinist, and more of an optimist."
—Margaret Wente, The Globe and Mail

"How Children Succeed is a must-read for all educators. It’s a fascinating book that makes it very clear that the conventional wisdom about child development is flat-out wrong."
—School Leadership Briefing

"I loved this book and the stories it told about children who succeed against big odds and the people who help them. … It is well-researched, wonderfully written and thought-provoking."
—Siobhan Curious, Classroom as Microcosm

"How to Succeed takes readers on a high-speed tour of experimental schools and new research, all peppered with anecdotes about disadvantaged youths overcoming the odds, and affluent students meeting enough resistance to develop character strengths."
—James Sweeney, Cleveland Plain Dealer

"[This] wonderfully written new book reveals a school improvement measure in its infancy that has the potential to transform our schools, particularly in low-income neighborhoods."
—Jay Mathews, Washington Post

"Nurturing successful kids doesn’t have to be a game of chance. There are powerful new ideas out there on how best to equip children to thrive, innovations that have transformed schools, homes, and lives. Paul Tough has scoured the science and met the people who are challenging what we thought we knew about childhood and success. And now he has written the instruction manual. Every parent should read this book – and every policymaker, too."
— Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit

"I wish I could take this compact, powerful, clear-eyed, beautifully written book and put it in the hands of every parent, teacher and politician. At its core is a notion that is electrifying in its originality and its optimism: that character — not cognition — is central to success, and that character can be taught. How Children Succeed will change the way you think about children. But more than that: it will fill you with a sense of what could be."
—Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here

"Turning the conventional wisdom about child development on its head, New York Times Magazine editor Tough argues that non-cognitive skills (persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence) are the most critical to success in school and life....Well-written and bursting with ideas, this will be essential reading for anyone who cares about childhood in America. "
— STARRED Kirkus Reviews

“This American Life contributor Tough (Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America) tackles new theories on childhood education with a compelling style that weaves in personal details about his own child and childhood. Personal narratives of administrators, teachers, students, single mothers, and scientists lend support to the extensive scientific studies Tough uses to discuss a new, character-based learning approach."
Publishers Weekly

About the Author

Paul Tough is the author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America and the author of a series of acclaimed articles on character and childhood in the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker. He is a contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine and a frequent contributor to the public-radio program This American Life. He lives with his wife and son in New York.

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