Book Review: How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough

Why do some children succeed while others fail?  


This is just one of the questions asked by Paul Tough in his revolutionary new book, How Children Succeed.


Most of us believe that success in childhood is primarily about cognitive skills—the kind of intelligence that is measured by big vocabularies, good grades in school, a high score on the SATs, and a college admission letter.    


Mr. Tough takes a different approach to what makes a successful child.   Drawing on new research from neuroscience, pediatrics, psychology, and economics, he argues that what matters most are the qualities that make up a child’s character: perseverance, curiosity, optimism, self-control, conscientiousness, and what he calls “grit”.  Being smart is great, he says, but research is showing that it’s certainly not everything.


Take, for example, the case of the GED (the high school equivalency test).  Tough tells the story of how Nobel-prize-winning economist James Heckman discovered that even though the IQs of those who took the GED and those who graduated high school were the same, their lives afterward weren’t anything alike.  In fact, future negative outcomes (unemployment, divorce, use of illegal drugs) were much more likely to occur with GED recipients.  What was happening?  Why were high school graduates so much better off than those who took the GED?  Heckman discovered that character traits like an inclination to persist at a boring and unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification; and the tendency to follow through on a plan are valuable not just in high school, but in college, and in life.  High School graduates, it turns out, were much more likely to possess these critical traits than their school mates who pursued a GED instead. 


How does a parent cultivate these character traits in their children?  The most important way is through forming a secure attachment.  At Adoptions Together, we talk a lot about attachment and how important it is for our children to feel safe and secure, both physically and emotionally, with at least one caregiver.  It is by feeling safe with you that your child is able to explore their world.  Mr. Tough writes that securely attached children are shown to be more socially competent, better able to form close friendships, calmer, more self-reliant, and better able to deal with obstacles.  Most importantly for children who have experienced early childhood trauma (like many, but not all, children that have been in foster care), a secure attachment helps create a resilience that acts as a buffer against stress. 


Research has shown that a healthy attachment and the building of these character traits (resiliency, self-control, conscientiousness, etc) can occur at any age.  It does not have to happen when children are infants or very young. There are a multitude of different interventions that can be implemented at any time, including talk therapy and skill-building around how to manage strong emotions. Therefore, parents who have adopted older children who may struggle with attachment issues can help their kids form healthy attachments and gain these important character traits no matter how old they are.


This is a hopeful book that will change how you think about parenting, traumatized children, and resilience.  Its message is clear: even children who grow up in the most difficult and harrowing circumstances can achieve great things.


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

By Paul Tough,

Available at DC Public Libraries, Amazon, and booksellers near you. 


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