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

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March 3, 2014

Why do some children escape a difficult childhood and become successful adults? Why do others end up in prison or stuck in a cycle of poverty? This fascinating book summarizes stories of children growing up in diverse socioeconomic situations, explores research on factors leading to success and failure academically and in life. As a follow up to my recent book review on Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, the author of this book tries to answer the difficult question of why some people who are exposed to significant childhood stress thrive and others do not. The answers to that question, and the traits that become more important in leading a productive life, prove to be somewhat unexpected. This book brings hope that through proper childhood intervention, not only academic success, but health care outcomes can be improved.

The author investigated this topic thoroughly by interviewing researchers in child development, as well as visiting numerous schools around the country and telling very compelling stories of individual children and their situations. How does this relate to health care? It turns out that several research studies link trauma in childhood to worsening health as adults. The author discusses a seminal research paper The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning Gold into Lead, which showed a very strong correlation of adult diseases to childhood trauma. 17,000 patients were surveyed as to whether they had suffered physical or emotional neglect or abuse as well as lived with divorced/separated parents or family who were mentally ill, addicted to substances or incarcerated. The higher the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score, “the worse the outcome on almost every measure from addictive behavior to chronic disease.” Patients with scores of 4 or higher, compared to those with no childhood trauma, were two times more likely to have cancer, heart disease and liver disease and four times more likely to have emphysema or chronic bronchitis (as they were twice as likely to smoke). 

Many surprising and revelatory studies such as the ACE study above make a strong case for the importance of developing character in children to withstand long term stress and be able to handle the challenges of life. The most important factor in a child withstanding pressure and stress is a parent that is attentive and helpful during childhood. For children growing up in a cycle of poverty, often their parents have a much more difficult time providing a stable parent-child relationship. The great news is that through child-parent psychotherapy that is now available at some community health clinics, parents can learn skills to more securely attach to their children. For example, after a year of child-parent psychotherapy, 61% of children in the treatment group had securely attached to their mother, whereas only 2% of children in the non-treatment group were able to do so.

Most of the book focuses on education and how to improve it in underprivileged children. The author divides the book into sections called How to Build CharacterHow to Think and How to Succeed. He illustrates his points by telling compelling stories of educators and children whose experiences highlight the theme that development of positive character traits in children and adolescents vastly outweighs development of cognitive knowledge in the long run. Even if children learn subjects well and perform well on knowledge tests, such as the SAT, what is more important for their long term success is development of traits that encourage perseverance and achieving long term goals. Seven character traits for success include: grit (defined as a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission), self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. A 2011 New York Times article written by the author of this book entitled What If the Secret to Success is Failure?, summarizes all these ideals very eloquently: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/what-if-the-secret-to-success-is-failure.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Hope and the optimism that character traits can be taught, molded and improve pervade this book. It shows parents and educators the possible improvements that an individual student can make in their lives and that potential is not limited by genetics or circumstances of birth. Positive thinking and having a growth mindset can achieve more. In one study, if students heard a message such as “Intelligence is not a finite endowment, but rather an expandable capacity that increases with mental work,” versus “a standard message about the way that drug use could interfere with academic achievement,” the students who heard the first message did significantly better on standardized achievement tests. Believing that one can achieve through hard work is as important as the hard work itself. In the same example, female students who heard the growth message scored the same as male students on the math section. Those who heard the standard message scored 10% worse.

The author follows the middle school students on the chess team from Intermediate School 315 in Brooklyn, a low income public school that fields the best chess team in middle school in America. How does a school where most children qualify for federally subsided lunches produce chess champions? They are all taught to work hard and examine their thinking and mistakes. The coach painstakingly reviews every chess move for each child in the tournaments. “She was teaching her students a new way to think…Cognitive flexibility is the ability to see alternative solutions to problems, to think outside the box, to negotiate unfamiliar situations. Cognitive self-control is the ability to inhibit an instinctive or habitual response and substitute a more effective, less obvious one…Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking…Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.”

This book uncovers research on methods and interventions that help children succeed at all levels: in health, academics and personal relationships. Many of our assumptions are turned upside down: that character is less important than intelligence, and that character and intelligence cannot be improved. In fact, character is more important than native intelligence, and that if parents, educators, health care providers can implement a concerted effort to teach character as conveyed in this book, the future of all children, and future society as a whole, would be forever impacted.

Many thanks to Dr. Sarah Pelmas, Upper School Dean of the National Cathedral School, in Washington, DC, for recommending reading this book and the New York Times article: What If the Secret to Success is Failure?