Book Review

How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough.  New York and Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Paul Tough has written many times before, movingly and effectively, about the lives of children in marginal situations.  In this, his latest book, he explores the newest research about what qualities children need to develop in order to have a successful life.  Using a story-driven style, Tough shows that childhood stress, which has a profound impact on a child’s later success, can be overcome when caring adults intervene.

One of the most interesting things about this work is Tough’s challenge to our cultural thesis that success follows those who score highest on standardized tests.  Studies that follow children through years and decades of their lives show clearly that it is not this indicator that matters the most.  Instead, skills that are connected to character—skills such as curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, grit, self-control, perseverance—these are the true predictors of success throughout life.

Even more exciting is the research that shows that these traits are not something that must be learned as a child.  The book traces the lives of several young adults who have faced incredible challenges at home and yet, with the help of a mentor, develop those non-cognitive skills connected to what Tough calls “performance character,” turn their lives around.

This is a profoundly optimistic book precisely because it proves that character is malleable and positive changes can happen when transformative help is provided.   Children can learn the non-cognitive skills that allow them to face and conquer difficulties, to strive for a goal, to achieve a better life.  Tough’s conclusion is also a challenge because it makes clear that all of us can help influence the development of character skills in children.  He shines a light on places where this reversal of a negative outcome has been achieved, and says he has a “feeling of admiration and hope when I watch young people making the difficult and often painful choice to follow a better path, to turn away from what might have seemed like their inevitable destiny. . . . [But] it’s not enough to just applaud their efforts and hope that someday, more young people follow their lead.  They did not get onto that ladder alone.  They are there only because someone helped them take the first step.”

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