How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough


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

"Fascinating But A Somewhat Skewed, Though Even, Cadence"
4 stars    This is a notable book I read and reviewed. Click to see more such books.
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This is an excellent book on some of the misconceptions, myths, and challenges that children face when attempting to succeed. Traits and skills previously thought fixed and unmalleable, like character, turn out to be mouldable, while IQ turns out to be a very unreliable predictor of success. The author chronicles  the challenges of a few teachers, students, and administrators as it blends glimpses into academic research with first-hand accounts of on-the-ground challenges faced by these people.

The structure of the book is very, very self-explanatory - there are only five chapters in the book - "How To Fail (And How Not To)", "How To Build Character", "How To Think", "How To Succeed", and "A Better Path". For my money, I think the first and second chapters - "How To Fail" and "How To Build Character" are well worth the price of the book - you would do well to read these carefully.

That many of US schools are not performing is not news. That several of these schools happen to be in poor neighbourhoods is also not unknown. Millions, and billions of dollars at the national level spent, and a score or more programs have been launched, scrapped, and launched - all in the hopes of improving measurable outcomes in the form of improved scores, lower dropout rates, sustained efforts that lead to more students finishing high school and college. All with varying degrees of success. The effort to find more fundamental causes of poor academic performance and poor social skills among students therefore continues.

"In 2008, eighty-three school-age teenagers were murdered in the city, and more than six hundred were shot but survived." The city being Chicago, where the "murder rate is twice as high as the rate in Los Angeles."

The book traces the efforts and struggles of people like Nadine Burke Harris, who was the "lead pediatrician of the Bayview Child Health Care Center", or Elizabeth Spiegel, school chess teacher at the Intermediate School 318, where more than 60 percent of the students "were from low-income families", and which was also the "best middle-school chess program in the United States, bar none." In following the lives of these and more people in the profession of education, the pursuit is to find out what are the building blocks of meaningful success in later life for students.

More than parents' education, professions, or any other socio-economic indicator, it is the correlation between "Adverse Childhood Experiences" and "negative adult outcomes" that are very powerful. These were described in a medical journal article titled, "The Relationships of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning Gold into Lead." written by Vincent Felitti. This is what causes children to fail, and hence the title of the chapter, "How To Fail (And How Not To)". For each category of trauma they had experienced, children were given one point by the researchers, and these categories included "physical and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and various measures of household dysfunction...".
What the researchers found was that "men with an ACE score above 5 were forty-six times more likely to have injected drugs than men with no history of ACEs." It so happens that our human bodies evolved to deal with stress that dissipated within a very short amount of time - you either got eaten by a predator in a jungle, or not - and not with the stress that humans are subjected to in modern society - the mental stress that can linger for long periods of time. It is the body's reaction to stress that really kills us, not the stress. After all, how many times has your boss actually murdered a person, with their bare hands? Not very often, I would hope and assume. On the other hand, elevated levels of stress result in a hardening of the arteries over a period of time, and that leads to heart attacks. If adults cannot handle stress very well, imagine what havoc stress plays on the psychological and mental state of children.

Lest we think that problems of underachievement are a problem only of those schools in low-income districts, the author points out that even in schools like Riverdale, where the affluent send their kids, children can be found wanting in grit. Schools such as Riverdale exist "not to raise the ceiling on a child's potential achievement in life but to raise the floor, to give him the kinds of connections and credentials that will make it very hard for him to every fall out of the upper class. What Riverdale offers parents, above all else, is a high probability of nonfailure."

And there in lies a valuable lesson - we cannot truly succeed in life unless we experience failure. Which requires the ability to tread off the known, safe, and beaten path, and try something different, not just for the sake of trying something different, but different based on a rational assessment of the alternatives. In other words, the ability to exercise cognitive self-control. "Cognitive self-control is the ability to inhibit an instinctive or habitual response and substitute a more effective, less obvious one" Now, researchers have demonstrated that "for infants to develop qualities like perseverance and focus, they need a high level of warmth and nurturance from their caregivers..." These traits are seeded at a very early stage in life. Being passionate about something can be "very liberating for kids".

This book is filled with such nuggets of research, anecdotes of grit and perseverance. By the time I was halfway through, I realized that it - the book - follows a somewhat predictable cadence, which is not a bad thing in itself, at all. A flurry of research at the beginning of a chapter or section that summarizes and familiarizes us with the problem at hand, the status of research into that area, some of the people involved with the research, findings, open questions, followed by a long dive into personal experiences of the people and students in the field. Towards the middle and also in latter part of the book I felt that the narrative had become too skewed towards the narrative, and less so towards the analytical. It may well be the case that without reading about in some detail about the challenges faced by these students and teachers we may not truly appreciate the monumental nature of the task - I however felt some passages appeared more as filler, an attempt to get the book past the two-hundred page mark.

A highly recommended, must-read for anyone wanting to understand the why and what of getting children to become more self-aware, develop character, and ultimately be happy in and with their lives.


ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547564654
ISBN-10: 0547564651
256 pages
Publication Date: 2012-09-04

Kindle Excerpt:




© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.