Book review: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
Kewauna was a girl who grew up in poverty on Chicago's South Side. She was on track to drop out of high school, become a teenage mother, and generally perpetuate the cycle of poverty that she was born into. But then something changed for her in high school. Her mom sat her down and said, I don't want you to end up like me. So Kewuana got support. She worked harder. She graduated high school and went to college.
Why do some people succeed and some fail?
"We've all encountered grown men and women who seem trapped in a destiny preordained by their childhoods, and we've all met people who seem to have almost miraculously transcended harsh beginnings."
It isn't only about who our parents are or the experiences we've had in our lives. But what is it? And how do we increase our odds of success?
These are the questions journalist Paul Tough set out to answer in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. His wide-ranging investigation ventures into classrooms around the country (both impoverished schools on Chicago's South Side and prestigious New York City private schools). He hits up school chess clubs and delves into research on all manner of related topics, such as self-discipline, stress, attachment theory, motivation, grit, executive functioning, and metacognition.
What is success?
Tough focused on a narrow subset of success for children: school performance. Success as a student means getting good grades and getting into college—hopefully as a gateway to rising out of poverty or landing a good career. Among recent high school graduates, 62.7% were enrolled in college in 2020. However, up to 40% of college students drop out.
I was disappointed that Tough didn't consider success more broadly. Many children will fail inside conventional schools and thrive beyond them. Many people I consider to be highly successful may not have been your typical good student, may not have attended college on schedule or at all, and are not following conventional career paths.
Tough even admits in the book that high school isn't that useful, except as a credential. And college may not be useful for most people except as a credential, either: Tough points out that in the 1900s, higher education was a great source of upward mobility, but now, it isn't. That said, in the US, a bachelor's nets you 83% more income than a high school diploma. But how much of that is due to arbitrary hiring requirements?
While I'm sure part of the reason Tough focused on school performance and college attendance is because there's actually good data available on these metrics, I do wish he had at least acknowledged the existence of other perspectives on success.
Fortunately, Tough's focus on conventional students was balanced (at least in part) by some of research he surveyed, which looked at positive outcomes beyond college and careers, such as fewer health issues (obesity, depression, etc), fewer addictions (smoking, alcohol, drugs), staying married, staying out of jail, and so on.
With this definition of success in hand, how do we help children succeed?
How do we increase children's success in school?
The majority of the book was focused around one question: How can we increase children's success in school?
When faced with failing students, most people jump to increasing the kids' academic input: give them more, earlier exposure to vocabulary words, give them math tutoring, start preschool sooner to amp up that kindergarten readiness. This is the "cognitive hypothesis." If we give kids more academic input early on, it'll increase their academic output later on. There are debates over how much one can actually increase children's cognitive abilities—how much is genetics versus effort, nature versus nurture?—but everyone agrees: regardless of your innate talent, quality input will definitely help.
But Tough argues that the cognitive hypothesis is wrong. The thesis of this book is that it's people's noncognitive skills that matter most, not IQ or other measures of cognition. It's personality traits and character, such as persistence, self-control, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. While IQ predicts standardized test scores, for example, GPA is better predicted by self-control measures such as self-discipline.
"According to this new way of thinking, the conventional wisdom about child development over the past few decades has been misguided. We have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children, and we have been using the wrong strategies to help nurture and teach those skills."
Anecdotally, I've read numerous stories of people who had less than ideal educational circumstances growing up, who then went on to get PhDs or be highly successful in some way or another. Their non-cognitive skills—their motivation, grit, perseverance—compensated for any cognitive skills that were lacking.
Over the course of the book, Tough explores the arguments against the cognitive hypothesis, and takes a deep dive into the most important noncognitive skills to see how they affect children's success, and how we can help children practice and develop them.
Example: IQ vs GPA
Here's an example of the kind of evidence Tough uses to make his case.
Cognitive determinists such as Charles Murray have argued that too many people get into college who are unqualified to be there. Then, because they're not intelligent enough, they later dropout. Murray is in favor of only high IQ, high ACT scores attending college.
Tough, on the other hand, cites research showing that GPA (not standardized test scores) predicted college graduation better than anything else—and GPA, remember, was itself better predicted by self-control than by IQ. Furthermore, low income students are more likely than higher income students to undermatch when choosing a college—that is, they decide to attend a less selective, less prestigious, less rigorous school than they could probably get into. If Murray was right, and that cognitive ability is what counts, these students should do great. But undermatched students are more likely to drop out.
Tough argues that ACT scores are not a measure of intelligence, but a measure of the quality of education you've received so far. IQ isn't as good a measure of success as noncognitive skills.
More evidence that noncognitive skills matter for success
Tough discusses the work of James Heckman, a UChicago economist. Heckman analyzed data from a longitudinal study that followed two cohorts of a small industrial town's children as they grew up. Some of the kids attended preschool; some of them didn't. You might expect that attending preschool gave kids a leg up on cognitive skills, but the bigger differences were in noncognitive skills: curiosity, self-control, the ability to delay gratification, and so on. And these skills led to better life outcomes, such as higher graduation rates, higher incomes, fewer teenage pregnancies, fewer committed crimes, and higher rates of home ownership.
Heckman also analyzed data showing that GED recipients are more similar to high school dropouts than to high school graduates: although they score higher on high school cognitive skills tests, they have the same kinds of life outcomes. What mattered for high school students' success was not cognitive ability, but, surprise surprise, the noncognitive traits that also generally led to high school graduation—such as self-control, the ability to think ahead, and persistence at boring tasks. (Though that last one may say more about school than it does about kids and success…)
Throughout the book, Tough layers in more research: A study from the 1970s found that the character strengths of conscientiousness, responsibility, determination, and perseverance predicted college success three times better than the cognitive measures of test scores, grades, or class rank. A longitudinal, three decade study of New Zealanders showed a strong correlation between childhood self-control and life outcomes. Lower self control was linked to smoking, health issues, crime, bad credit, and being a single parent household. And so on.
Tough's argument is solid. Noncognitive skills matter for children's success: self-regulation, self-control, managing emotions, staying focused, resilience, perseverance. Furthermore, these skills can be taught.
How do children develop key noncognitive skills?
However, siimply showing that noncognitive skills are important and teachable isn't enough. How do we help children actually develop critical noncognitive skills?
Unfortunately, Tough doesn't answer that question to my satisfaction. The book is spent convincing the reader that noncognitive skills matter more than cognitive ones for children's school performance. It doesn't tell us how to help children develop those noncognitive skills.
For example, Tough mentions that the OneGoal program in Chicago schools tries to instill resourcefulness, resilience, ambition, professionalism, and integrity in its students: these values "permeate the program". But he gives us little detail on how exactly the schools are attempting to teach these things. Do teachers talk about these values? Do kids practice them somehow? Inquiring minds want to know.
I'm interested in self-discipline, motivation, and how to help my children be self-motivated and awesome. I want to know whether there's important stuff I should be doing or teaching them. My husband Randy and I agree that many of these noncognitive skills are virtues; so how do we develop them? Randy thinks we can look backwards, to ancient wisdom, to learn how people practiced virtues, and I imagine there's some value in that. But I want to also look now, to current research, to understand how these virtues develop.
The book has some answers, to be sure, but not the ones I was looking for. Here's what it included.
Counteracting chronic stress
Helping children succeed starts in infancy. Tough discusses the correlation of adverse childhood experiences (such as abuse, neglect, divorced or separated parents, family members who were addicts, etc) and chronic stress with negative adult health outcomes.
In summary, the body's stress response is designed for short-term physical threats, not for the chronic, non-physical stressors of modern life. When young children and babies are repeatedly, chronically stressed, the development of the prefrontal cortex is especially affected, which can cause issues with self-regulatory activities and executive functioning, which are critical for later success.
Self-regulatory behaviors can include self-discipline, self-control, and emotion regulation—does this list sound familiar? Executive functioning includes the ability to deal with unpredictable situations or confusing information, working memory (such as keeping track of a bunch of things at once), cognitive impulse control (like in the famous stroop task, IMAGE, in which you're asked to name the color of words, but the word just happen to be color names), and emotional impulse control (i.e., not punching the kid who takes your toy truck).
Fortunately, the prefrontal cortex is responsive to early intervention and the critical skills it supports are malleable.
"Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them."
That's right. One of the best ways to protect against and counteract the negative biochemical effects of early stress is nurturing family relationships. High quality, responsive parenting (especially mothering) leads to happier, more resilient infants, even in high stress environments.
There's been research done on this with both rats and humans—the rat studies are classics. Every time I read about children and stress, there those rats are. In short, there were two rat cohorts: one group that, when young, got lots of licking and grooming from their mothers (which helps rat pups calm down, be less stressed, and less anxious); one group that got less. The rats with attentive, nurturing mothers were less anxious, more curious, more social, less aggressive, healthier, and lived longer. This worked with cross-reared pups, too—it wasn't just a genetics thing. It was both about biochemistry and gene expression. Being nurtured led to more independent, all around better pups.
And the same is true for humans. Tough describes, for example, a successful intervention program that promoted stronger relationships and more secure attachments between mothers and children, which led to all kinds of wonderful positive outcomes—not the least of which was lower stress!
The lesson here is that helping children succeed starts at infancy, with strong, nurturing relationships between children and their parents—especially their mothers.
As children age, how do we help them develop the noncognitive skills and character traits that correlate with success?
Tough dives into positive psychology, the study of how people flourish, and comes out with a list of character strengths that seem to best predict good outcomes: self control, grit, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity. He talks to researchers who study these traits, including Martin Seligman (a founder of the field of positive psychology), Angela Duckworth (of "Grit" fame), and Carol Dweck (a proponent of the growth mindset).
There's plenty in these chapters to dig into. However, while Tough explains what traits and skills correlate with success, he doesn't tell us how to help kids acquire those skills.
For example, accomplishing long-term goals, such as graduating high school or college, requires self-discipline. According to Angela Duckworth, self-discipline can be divided into motivation (the desire to do it) and volition (the willpower and self control to do it). You need both. Without motivation, all the volition in the world won't help. But how do you develop better self control, or better motivation? As Tough says:
"This is the problem with trying to motivate people: no one really knows how to do it well. It is precisely why we have such a booming industry in inspirational posters and self-help books and motivational speakers: what motivates us is often hard to explain and hard to measure."
But we ought to know something... right? I'm aware of other research on motivation that Tough doesn't discuss in the book. Motivation exists on a continuum from intrinsic, i.e., things we do that are enjoyable and rewarding in themselves; to extrinsic, things we do for rewards or to avoid negative consequences. Extrinsic motivation can be detrimental for long-term learning. Intrinsic motivation is critical. How do we get more of it?
Tough does discuss a couple fascinating examples that illustrate the importance of intrinsic motivation. For instance, some New York schools used a variety of external incentivisation programs in attempts to raise grades and improve student outcomes—from rewarding teachers when their students performed well on tests, to rewarding students with cell-phone minutes or other gifts for good performance, to rewarding families financially if their kids scored well. However, these programs had few, if any, positive long-term effects.
The importance of challenges, failure, and overcoming obstacles
A few clues to how we can develop self control and willpower came up later, in the sections on challenge and failure.
In these sections, Tough describes how children need to face the possibility of failure to grow—without helicopter parents removing challenges or being over-protective.
"The best way for a young person to build character is for him to attempt something where there is a real and serious possibility of failure. In a high-risk endeavor, whether it's in business or athletics or the arts, you are more likely to experience colossal defeat than in a low-risk one—but you're also more likely to achieve real and original success."
Tough relates some useful metacognitive strategies people can use in making and working toward long-term goals, which are mostly drawn from positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy. Some of these strategies also help develop character traits such as self-control and willpower.
For example, one strategy he described was mental contrasting: you mix optimism about the future with pessimism about the obstacles you'll face getting to that future, to end up with a more realistic view of how you'll overcome obstacles to get to your goals.
Another exercise involved making rules for yourself, since rules can be a metacognitive substitute for willpower. As William James put it, "Habit and character are essentially the same thing." Using personal rules and good habits can reinforce virtuous behavior.
A successful book
Although How Children Succeed didn't give me all the answers I may have wanted, I still recommend it. Paul Tough's anecdotes are interesting and illustrative, and his descriptions of relevant research clear. If you're curious about the factors that impact success in schooling—stress, motivation, grit, and all the rest of the noncognitive skills—it would be a worthwhile book to pick up.