Book Review: How Children Succeed

What makes children successful?  Answering this question should be the key to unlocking issues of education: figure out what makes for success, teach it, problem solved.  Previous answers often come with strong world views around humanity: the concept of meritocracy, social Darwinism, and writers like Malcolm Gladwell all provide their own answers with high degrees of variation.

It is easy to see that wealth and privilege help and that its more difficult to be successful when coming from a background of poverty, but what is it about that distinction that allows privileged children to be more successful?  What is it that makes some children capable of escaping cycles of poverty, while others remain trapped?  Why do some children born to families of great privilege burn out and fail, despite their early advantages?

In his new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough adds his own answers to these longstanding questions with compelling results.

Tough makes a strong argument that’s been made before: non-cognitive skills are more important than intelligence when predicting future success.  This means that hard work, curiosity, perseverance, and self-control are all more beneficial than raw intellectual power.  In addition Tough claims that children raised with minimal childhood trauma have a distinct advantage in their development of these characteristics as well.  One could almost summarize the entire book into: “hard work and good parenting make children successful.”  Almost.

Tough’s work is at its best when he is pulling together the research of others.  The book hits the ground running highlighting the importance and impact of a strong set of non-cognitive skills citing study after study along with the experiences of schools and scientists alike.  Tough does a great job of bringing together research on brain chemistry, poverty, education, and the psychology of success, and from that mix creating a single argument.  This interdisciplinary approach suits the subject as it acknowledges that incredible number of variables that impact a person’s ability to succeed throughout their life.

What Tough does not address, however, is a definition of success itself.  He is clear that growing up in poverty and remaining in poverty does not mean success.  He is clear that being a high school dropout means you have been unsuccessful.  He does not, at any point in the book, take the time to define what it means to be a successful adult.  Tough makes a strong argument that one does not need to graduate from college to be successful, citing himself and Steve Jobs.  (Though he goes to great length to justify that position.)  Additionally Tough makes a strong and well argued claim that simply earning money does not equate to success, citing numerous graduates of prestigious universities that go into finance and business simply because it is easy and the field has a high financial yield.  He is also (appropriately) skeptical of whether or not a single-minded pursuit of excellence is true success, citing example of child prodigies in chess.  Tough’s claim that non-cognitive skills are essential to success is compelling.  The argument would be stronger with if he could create a direct link between those skills and long-term success.  Tough actively avoids presenting a clear definition of success and as a result, his argument is diffused through a lack of strong vision.

It boils down to this: non-cognitive skills like curiosity, perseverance, and self-control are essential to a child’s ability to succeed long-term.  Early childhood dramatically shapes a child’s non-cognitive skills.  Traumatic experience impedes a child’s abilities, while strong parenting improves these abilities.  As such, students enter schools with a wide range of proficiency in these non-cognitive skills.  Schools, social-workers, and counselors can teach and develop these skills as a high leverage to help reverse the patterns of inequality.

Ultimately, How Children Succeed is not an answer in and of itself.  In order to really make the work meaningful I had to continually relate Tough’s writing to what I’d read in other books on the subject like Mindset, Outliers, and Meet Your Happy Chemicals.  By making connections between Tough’s expanded literature review, and the works of others on the subject of success, I was able to create meaning about the role of schools and what it takes to help students who enter with disadvantages.  Without that prior knowledge I think I would have left the book interested, but unsure of how to move forward and create success.

Tough is a strong journalist and it shows.  I’m glad I read the book, and I’ve already recommended it to many others in the education field, but I’ve encouraged them to skim it.  Frankly though, Tough’s writing did not necessitate and entire book.  It would have been more effective as a traditional literature review or New Yorker style article, dropping a good deal of the lengthy biographical context and jumping straight to the analysis.

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