2013-11-24 How Children Succeed

I read a lot of parenting books (you can catch all my reading activity over at my GoodReads account). But I am fascinated by the topic of parenting. What makes a good parent? What do I believe when it comes to Nature vs Nurture? What can I affect and how? I clearly love giving myself unnecessary guilt trips.

Obviously, there aren’t any real concrete answers to these questions. We can talk all we want about test cases and what works for us, our feelings and what we’ve tried. But science hasn’t really confirmed anything at all. And the results of our “test cases” across the ages have not lead to any concrete results. At all.

Until now.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough is, I believe, the closest we have inched to finding scientific evidence as to how parenting affects a child. This book is fascinating, eye-opening, and mind-blowing.

To be clear: How Children Succeed can be a rather dry read. It isn’t a narrative or a story. It is research, findings, summations, and deductions.  Yet I was riveted.

As a mom to 2 youngs boys, worried about their future, the rising price of college, the highly competitive job market, I want to make sure my children have the tools they need to succeed.  I worry I will fail them and they will end up 22 years old, living in my basement, overweight, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, complaining that the world owes them.  I worry.

For a long time I have suspected that character matters more than native intelligence, that nurture and parental involvement is far more influential than the credentials a preschool has.

You see, I am not the smartest individual.  Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t dumb, BUT I was outshined by a brilliant brother most of my life.  I went to school through the talented & gifted program but more as a result of hard work and determination, not necessarily intellect.  I was an absolute disaster at “logic” class and it was kindly suggested that I resign from that extracurricular activity.

I then graduated from a pretty terrible high school in rural Virginia.  We had 2 AP classes offered in the entire school.  I took them both.  In one of the classes (Calculus) it was announced that we should skip the AP exam entirely as we had not made it through enough of the curriculum.  The second of the classes (Government) only a handful of us bothered to take the exam and even fewer scored high enough to have that translate to college credit (I was not one).  To be fair, though, I did have a brilliant fight with my AP Government teacher over whether or not you can place the zipcode underneath and right justified on an address when mailing a letter.  And my AP Calculus teacher gave us cookies every morning and sang a very lovely “Friday” song

Yet despite the limited resources in my formal education, I did well.  I am by all accounts successful and, most importantly, I am extremely satisified and happy with my life.  I don’t think I could ask for more.

So taking personal situations in to account, I have always wondered: what makes kids successful?  There has to be something else besides ivy-dripped institutional gates and award-winning lacrosse teams.

How Children Succeed gave me language for my pre-existing beliefs.  Success in kids is correlated to character.  And, here’s the kicker: character can be taught.

In fact, based on statistical findings, research, and lab tests (I never thought of lab rats as cute until the entire section on mom rats licking & grooming their baby rats), Paul Tough puts forth the case that we are focusing on the wrong things in school.  Instead of focusing on equations and spelling, there should be emphasis placed on character development.  Tough argues that if we want to give poverty stricken children the path to overcome the odds against them we shouldn’t put money towards fancy computers and more books, we should put resources in to mentors and guidance counselors that can help these children develop the motivation, resiliency, and belief in themselves that they will need to make it through life’s challenges.

An amazing point the book makes: IQ is not teachable and can not be changed.  Yet Tough found that kids who believed that they could change their IQ, their native intelligence, were more successful.  Kids who were motivated and strong-willed made it, regardless of IQ.

Like I said, this book is mind-blowing.

You really do need to read the entire book to understand the ramifications, arguments, persuasiveness, and ultimate impact these findings have.  My copy is dog-eared, highlighted, and marked up.  Always the sign of an engaging read.

But I will share one more thing that resonated with me, as a mom still in the throes of early parenthood…

The place of a caregiver (particularly a mom or motherly figure) who supports and soothes a child during the earliest years of their life is, apparently, epically important.  Tough found that kids (and those cute baby lab rats) who had mothers invested in them, who touched them tenderly and often, who helped them carry their emotions and stresses, were more successful and happier.

Indeed, it wasn’t because these kids had higher ACT/SAT scores or went to better schools.  It was because they came from a supportive base where they knew they were believed in.  These kids were not hesitant to explore and take risks; they learned how to control emotions and deal with disappointment through the guidance of the mother; and, scientifically, their hormones and brain activity were different.

This book may make you reconsider some things as a parent.  Tough discusses in the conculsion how the research for this book affected him on a personal level, as a brand new dad.

Sure, you can run around to get your child accepted in to the most prestigious preschool and you can sign them up for chess club in elementary school.  Yet he personally opted to put away the flashcards.  He decided to spend more time keeping his child from feeling stress and tension (not that this book advocates helicopter parenting, quite the contrary!) and to spend more time bonded to his child.

As he writes:

First, as much as possible, your protect him from serious trauma and chronic stress; then, even more important, you provide him with a secure, nurturing relationship with at least one parent and ideally two.  That’s not the whole secret of success, but it is a big, big part.

So now if you will excuse me, I am off to go cuddle and hug my kids.

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2 Thoughts on “On “How Children Succeed” {Book Review}

  1. So interesting! I’m totally in the camp of play-based learning in really young age. I do have friends that drill their kids to memorize things they have no business even caring about at this point.
    Today Des was playing with a toy and I was asking him to show me the yellow star. Eventually I said to myself, “Wait. He’s one! Just let him play and give him some hugs to let him know you’re around.”
    So I did.
    Tamara recently posted…It’s Because You Care.My Profile

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