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

After devouring “Brain Rules for Baby” like a hot-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookie, I spied the title “How Children Succeed” and scarfed up Paul Tough’s latest journalistic endeavor; it was like expecting a chips ahoy and sinking my teeth into a kettle chip.

You see, “How Children Succeed” is not a parenting book.  Tough offers only a few pieces of broad strokes guidance.  He states: “[S]cientists have demonstrated 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 axis functions well.  And how do you do that?  It is 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.”  Tough also cautions us parents to balance “our urge to provide everything for our child, to protect him from all harm” against “our knowledge that if we really want him to succeed, we need to first let him fail.”  That’s it, folks.  Parents searching for new ideas or practical tips will be disappointed.

But those who remember a time when they cared about other people’s children will eat up what is essentially Tough’s second book-length New Yorker article examining the intersection of education and poverty (the first, “Whatever It Takes,” is arguably an even more interesting read).  The bulk of the book tells the scientific and historical story of “character education” in U.S. schools.  To summarize in a patchwork of Tough’s words, character strengths like grit and curiosity “matter . . . to young people’s success,” “are not innate” or genetic but rather “are rooted in brain chemistry [and] . . . molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up,” and even after the most formative years “are very much changeable – entirely malleable, in fact. . . .  They are skills you can learn; they are skills you can practice; and they are skills you can teach.”  And Tough tells fascinating tales about a handful of educators and community service providers trying to ensure that process happens.

Tough skillfully splices their stories together and distills complicated concepts into easily digestible explanations (e.g., “mental contrasting . . . means concentrating on a positive outcome and simultaneously concentrating on the obstacles in the way”), classifications (e.g., “Rules . . . are not the same as willpower.  They are a metacognitive substitute for willpower.”), and analogies (his Napoleon/marshmallow extended metaphor was intellectually delectable), all the while serving up engaging prose (e.g., “He is a classic academic intellectual, his glasses thick, his IQ stratospheric, his shirt pocket bristling with mechanical pencils.”).

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