How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

With a current child poverty rate of twenty-two percent, about seven percentage points higher than in the 1960s, it seems by all accounts that social reform in this country is stunted. The current discourse surrounding our education policy focuses primarily on achievement gaps. But in Paul Tough’s absorbing and well-penned How Children Succeed, he asks a much more complex question: How can our children in varying socioeconomic circumstances grow into successful adults?

Tough’s contention, steeped in neuroscientific and psychological research as well as specific case studies, is that character development enables success much more readily than pure intellect. “Character is one of those words that complicate any conversation, mostly because it can mean very different things to different people.” But here, Tough narrows the definition to investigate the benefits of self-control, grit, optimism, resilience, conscientiousness, and curiosity among many other traits. He brilliantly demonstrates how essential good parenting—or mentoring, even—is to success. On a fundamental level, unequivocal emotional support at critical junctures in brain development (specifically infancy and then early adolescence), can deeply affect a child’s path.

This ideology, of course, is not groundbreaking—but what Tough does so well here is provide the physiological implications of parenting that set forth the foundation of future life-skills. This is not sentimentality; this is science. He explains how the brain responds and forms during infancy to proper nurturing. He further explains the long-term importance of attachment. “Scientists have reached a consensus in the past decade that the key channel through which early adversity causes damage to developing bodies and brains is stress.” Moreover, “high-quality mothering can act as a powerful buffer against the damages that adversity inflicts on a child’s stress-response system.” It becomes important, then, to understand that character is neither innate nor finite. It is teachable throughout the course of childhood and even into adulthood.

But what can we truly ask of single-parent households living in poverty? Overwhelmed by circumstances, entrenched single mothers, for example, may not have the necessary time or socio-emotional resources. As Tough highlights, it is not lack of intelligence or poverty itself but rather the stress and instability poverty inflicts that disrupts achievement and, ultimately, success. We are lucky to meet a few students within these pages able to overcome tremendous obstacles, and marvel along with Tough at their own transcendence. Undoubtedly, their toolset will prove far more helpful in finding happiness in life than those carried by more affluent students who have never learned how to fail.

The problem, Tough points out, is that our national conversation about poverty is deeply flawed. He contends that liberals cannot admit character matters because that seemingly would concede a conservative agenda. And conservatives fail to understand that teaching character is ultimately about humanism. Because as Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown in her research, “regardless of the facts on the malleability of intelligence, students do much better academically if they believe intelligence is malleable.” And to further reiterate Tough’s central point, character is definitely malleable. So is destiny. Success is, in many ways, all about mindset. So if we give all children a reason to believe they can succeed, who’s to say they won’t?

-JF, 2013

Citation: Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed. Boston, Mariner, 2013. Digital.

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