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Book Review: How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

Sister Bernadette was having none of my hijinks. Her face was as old and gray as her patience, and time was running out on both. Usually when my first grade self got a bit “bold” (Sister’s favorite word for me), a swift and decisive reaction from her was enough to get me in my seat. This day, though, I was on a roll. I had the class in stitches, and like any good comedian I wanted to ride it out. I was incorrigible.

Sister Bernadette, in a rare gutsy move I hadn’t seen before or since, made me stand in front of her desk facing the class in a waste paper basket. The message: “You’re garbage.” Sister was betting on my ability to be embarrassed.

This old school nun was not a good gambler. She made two fatal mistakes: 1. She overestimated my moral sense. 2. She underestimated my ingenuity. She had me stand with my back to her and my face to the crowd. Immediately I was miming and moving my hands, continuing to make the class laugh. She told me to stand straight with my arms locked at my sides. I stood perfectly still. Except for my face. I started contorting my mouth, nose and eyes in all sorts of crazy shapes. More laughs!

The basket was then moved to the side of her desk where I could face her. That’s when pure boredom set in. Still, I wasn’t absorbing the lesson, until my older brother came in the classroom with a message from his 4th grade teacher. In hindsight, Sister must have, without my notice, summoned my brother down on a messenger ruse. This was a devastatingly clever strategic move on her part, because the thought of my mother knowing about this incident terrified me to the point of pure panic. Instant, hysterical tears came pouring out of me and I lost my breath. The beating that awaited me when I returned home would be so severe I wouldn’t be able to sit for a week. Sister Bernadette finally seemed satisfied and I was permitted to go back to my seat. Lesson learned. I never acted up that much again in her classroom.

In his new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, New York Times journalist Paul Tough presents research about the importance of traits like resilience, optimism, self-control, and conscientiousness to long term success. These characteristics appear to be more important than early-intervention academic support for long term success in children growing up under the poverty line. Tough, an education reform reporter and author of the poverty-reform call-to-arms book Whatever It Takes, cites studies that give a different view on what schools, parents and the government can do to break the poverty cycle through education; success, these studies say, lies not in early intervention and implementation of traditional cognitive skills (reading, math) but by teaching the “non-cognitive” skills that noteworthy people appear to have in abundance since toddlerhood.

This “strong character” argument in education is nothing new. Parochial schools and many elite private schools use “building character” as a selling point as much today as they did 200 years ago. Tough reports that the current education system’s shift away from inculcating character traits toward teaching to standardized testing (the

quantitative measurement of basic academic skills) only took hold in the 20th century. This skill-measuring approach was solidified by the most recent testing-on-steroids No Child Left Behind program. And, Tough notes, it is just easier to test skills like reading, addition and subtraction. “Soft-skills” are harder to quantify. How does one judge a child’s self-control? How do you measure curiosity? What defines “grit” in a first grader?

Enter the Marshmallow test. It turns out there are ways to measure character traits. This famous test, conducted by researcher Walter Mischel in 1972 at Stanford University, put one large, yummy marshmallow in front of a 4-year-old, then instructed the child to wait to eat the treat. If she could wait for 10 short minutes, the researcher said, she would have two marshmallows, but only if she waited the whole time. If she couldn’t wait, she could ring a bell and the researcher would come back and the preschooler could eat the one marshmallow.

Some preschoolers made it through the ten minutes, some didn’t. There were varying lengths of tolerance, of course. None of this is very interesting. The mind-blowing part of this study was what Mischel and others learned years later. It turns out that the length of time the 4-year-old waited directly correlated to her level of achievement decades later. The kids who could wait were more likely to graduate from high school, avoid teen pregnancy, and dodge other pitfalls, then go on to college and eventually earn more. The researchers studied the tapes and discovered the successful delayers had creative ways to distract themselves from the tempting treat. Some sang songs, some turned their backs to the marshmallow, others played with their hands. One kid even napped. The kids who couldn’t hold off for even just a little bit tended to fall into the nightmares that poverty can bring, dropping out, drugs, crime, and early sexual intercourse. The message was clear: the early character skill of being able to delay gratification was essential to accomplish long-term goals.

Tough cites some similar thought-provoking examples of this character research that ended up delivering the question of measurable traits to neuroscientists. Neuroscientists love their EEG’s, PET scans, CAT scans and functional MRI’s, and they employed the tech to discover if any brain variations were happening between the successful kids and the “at-risk” youth the education system tries so desperately to help. The tech showed some disturbing results: brain anatomy is altered, yes, physically altered, by stress. Repeated stress introduced into early lives can prevent the construction of the pathways children need in order to develop good character traits and solid cognitive skills.

This isn’t to say that those pathways can’t be generated later. If lower-income parents, Tough posits, can learn some theories and practices adopted from the attachment parenting movement, the children’s brains can recover and the kids can thrive and succeed even whilst living in poverty. There is some evidence to support this, and Tough gives some real world examples of what an “attachment to build character” program looks like. He also spends quite a large chunk of the book studying unique and wildly successful inner-city chess clubs as well as some pathway-to-college programs in Chicago’s poverty-ridden districts.

How Children Succeed is pretty compelling. Tough is a seasoned writer. He frames the dry research with rich profiles of educators and academics. His stories of students affected by these programs pull at your heartstrings.

Personally, the book brought me back to fundamental questions that come with being a parent in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia. No child I know is struggling with poverty. The kids here attend very well-ranked public and private schools. Despite their secure middle-class lives, these children’s bad behavior frustrates me almost daily. Not only would the majority of these kids not be able to wait 5 seconds for the marshmallow, they would not be able to keep their hands off the bag as the researcher opened it. I couch my complaints to my husband as “lack of discipline” but Tough’s book peels that onion back a bit more and reminds me these children lack fundamental character traits. And indeed, Tough mentions how this dearth can affect more affluent children, especially those born to classic “helicopter” parents (attachment parents gone astray). I worry for the preschool children who torture their infant siblings, I am concerned for the kids who can’t sit in a restaurant, or those who simply cannot allow their parent two quiet minutes for an important phone call. These parents, in a misguided effort to shield their children from suffering, are creating self-control-free mini-tyrants. We all worry for the future of our country when we’re standing in line behind these little monsters at Whole Foods. A little character-trait training could do us all some good.

That fateful day in the beginning of my first grade year, I rode the bus home in fearful silence. I dragged my feet when my two older brothers got off the bus with the dozen (wild!) public school kids that also lived in the dilapidated apartment complex across from an equally dilapidated US Army depot. It was still September, my first month at the small club that was Monsignor McHugh Elementary school and here I was, already labeled garbage. My brothers were home probably for a full minute before I got to the door. I expected one of my mother’s famous full-on, thick-leather-70’s-belt blitzes, but all I got was the typical (and contradictory) “I-miss-my-baby-all-day” smothering. My brother didn’t rat me out. He let me dodge a bullet, and I always respected him for it. I learned loyalty and compassion from him that day.

My parents divorced when I was in 4th grade. We stayed in that apartment complex, my brothers and I sharing a room, until I was 12-years-old. Life was stressful, but my brother had just enough rare moments of precocious wisdom to carry me through to adulthood. I chafed every single teacher at Msgr. McHugh and at my catholic high school, but there were a few strong, trustworthy folks there who provided me with some solid footing. And early in my life, my bond with my mother was good enough to create the brain I needed for success.

My neighbors weren’t so lucky. By the time I was in second grade, I could feel myself pulling away from my playmates by leaps and bounds. They would spend any loose change immediately on candy; I would save it. They would play pranks and steal little things here and there, and I would walk by myself in the woods. I would read; they would watch hours upon hours of TV. By the time we left the complex when I was 12, I was college bound and they were running with crowds that would lead them down tragic paths. The discrepancy was painfully apparent. An old neighbor stopped my mother in the grocery store, years later, to ask how she managed to get me off to college when her granddaughter, my childhood friend, was pregnant by the time she turned 16. My mother couldn’t do anything but shake her head. She often had the same question.

In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough may have just offered the answer.