Book Review: How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

how children succeed

Rating: 4 / 5

I find the topic of education, and the reasons/rationale/discussion about why some children excel academically more than others quite fascinating.  Since I’m not a parent, my opinions on this matter are somewhat biased and my perspective a bit skewed.  That being said, since I would like to be a parent, I also find information about this to be relevant to how I will raise future children.

It has long been thought of that success is heavily dependent on having a high IQ.  In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough counters that while there is a correlation between IQ and future success, there are other characteristics which are better indicators of success.  These characteristics are conscientiousness, perseverance, self-discipline, and grit.  One huge hurdle, however, is how to instill and nurture these characteristics in children. 

Although the book comes in right around 200 pages, it is packed with information and relevant insight.  One aspect I never considered is the impact of stressful events and trauma in childhood.  The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) questionnaire, which reflects how many significant traumatic events a person experiences in childhood, has been shown to be highly correlated not only to behavior problems in class, but also long term health consequences.  The quick and dirty rationale is this: the brain responds to stress by releasing hormones, which cause side effects associated with “fight or flight” such as clammy hands or dry throat/mouth. Way back in the caveman days, this happened relatively infrequently, and for short periods of time (think about being hunted down by a lion or bear).  Today, however, stressful events can last for days, weeks, months, and years (such as abuse, negligent parents, or parents divorcing).  Over time, this stress begins affecting certain areas of the brain, which lead to behavior problems.  As children’s brains are malleable and not fully developed, the harmful effects of this are thus magnified. However, even though this seems grim, research has shown that the effects stress has on children can be mitigated through attentive parenting (and yes, I have definitely made notes on this topic).

This is only one interesting area that Tough delves into.  He also goes into detail about the KIPP Academy, and the change from focusing on academics to also improving character.  KIPP Academy founder David Levin noticed that the former KIPP students who excelled in college were not necessarily the same ones who excelled academically at KIPP.  And sometimes, the ones who did well at KIPP did not necessarily graduate college.  While there are a multitude of scenarios and obstacles that students can face between high school and college, one thought is that at KIPP, students were surrounded by adults who helped them succeed and provided advice and guidance.  In college, however, there is no longer that constant pressure to do homework and study, and some students falter.  The ones that did succeed seemed to be more optimistic and have more resilience.  The character traits that KIPP and some other educational institutions are trying to instill are more practical than ethical. So they focus less on morals and integrity and more on self-discipline and persistence.

The area I found most interesting and relatable is the topic of affluence and character.  One of the biggest problems facing parents is finding the balance between not wanting children to suffer or fail and challenging them to experiment in order to grow and learn. One thing that bothers me is the need to make every child feel special.  I think it is important to recognize when children do well, but I am whole-heartedly against everybody getting a participation award/badge just for showing up. People win and people lose-that’s just the way life is, but always telling a child they did fantastic and awarding them for every minor thing just sets them up, not only for failure, but can give them a sense of entitlement.  What is going to happen when the child grows up and the first difficult moment he faces in life is when he’s an adult?

How Children Succeed clearly demonstrates that there is no easy way to help children develop character.   It is a long and sometimes arduous process, beginning with being attentive and nurturing with newborns and toddlers.  As they grow older, it is imperative to let them try new things and seek various opportunities to expand their interests and skill set, while letting them know that they won’t be successful at everything, but failure is part of the process and acceptable. I think this is a great book for all adults.  For parents, it gives them actionable items they can do to help their child and solid reasoning and research.  For non-parents, it gives great insight into the problems in education, which ultimately end up being society’s problem.

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