For The Someday Book

Book Review: How Children Succeed

Posted on: May 6, 2013

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, Hougton-Mifflin, 2012, 231 pp.

How-Children-Succeed-by-Paul-ToughI’ll admit it: I was drawn to this book as an anxious parent eager to do everything possible to equip my child for success. I read one of the preliminary excerpts in The New York Times, and I was fascinated. To continue the confessional spirit: I am someone who is highly risk-averse, and fears failure. I would like to teach my child how to take risks and fail boldly, then get up and try again. So far, his natural tendencies match the caution of both his parents. Instruction will be required, and I’m not sure I know how to give it.

Tough’s title might sell a lot of books to people like me (although I borrowed it from the library), but he is writing about children like mine, from relatively stable homes with educated, financially privileged parents. He takes an honest, close look at what we can do as a nation to change the lives of children from low income backgrounds and give them not only the opportunity, but the support they need to succeed. What he discovers is that intellect is not nearly as important as core character traits like grit, self-control, conscientiousness, and curiosity. If you have intellect but not those character strengths, and you come from a disadvantaged starting place, you will not likely overcome those disadvantages. If you do have those strengths, and some critical support along the way, you can overcome all kinds of poor schooling and stressful home situations, even improving intelligence scores, academic success and life opportunities.

Tough researches a wide array of programs aimed at overcoming the disadvantages of poverty, uncertain home life and poor schooling. He looks at research from neuroscientists, educators, educational reform experts, social scientists, and doctors. He diagnoses success and failure in programs to help children and adolescents, and concludes that we have failed as a nation to adequately address these problems. The challenges of poverty, the legacy of racism, poor schools, unstable family life and inadequate support combine to leave millions of young people further and further behind. We must improve all of these things, but if we could start with the most effective, it would be certain strengths of character that would help overcome the rest.

I found the list that Tough uses, drawn from researchers and employed by schools in the successful KIPP charter school program, to be particularly interesting and helpful. The character strengths deemed most important to success are: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity (76). Notice that kindness, compassion, respect, honesty, helpfulness and other moral traits are not included. While those are important, they are not the things that lead to success in life. Most schools emphasize those character traits, and do not talk at all about the others. When you are trying to save children from a broken system, those are the strengths that make a difference–and the best news of all is that they can be taught.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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