Paul Tough’s 2012 investigation into what it takes for children to be successful in American opens doors to dialogues about improving the education system, but more so, improving how we care for our children. In “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” Tough looks at the science behind what makes humans more likely to be well-adjusted and successful in life, and how parenting strategies can help or hurt those chances. He delves into the troubled world of inner city schools, mining out success stories and understanding failed ones.
At the heart of the book is the optimistic belief that all humans can achieve great things, and those great things are made easier to attain, or harder to attain, depending on the circumstances of your upbringing, your education, and whether you’ve been given sufficient opportunities to fail (really, failure is one of the keys to success). Through his research and case studies of different schools around the country, including the well-known KIPP schools and the tragically struggling South Side Chicago schools, Tough highlights a set of character strengths that set successful people apart from others: conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance, and optimism.
Tough examines successful models being implemented around the country, and even some that haven’t seen the success they want, but are working in the right direction. He elucidates the challenges in overcoming poverty, failing schools, and the inevitable trauma and stress that punctuate the lives of at least 10% of all American children. He offers widespread solutions, though unattainable without immense reform to an already crumbling and controversial social support system. He also suggests that the best help we can offer these children is through the most local and immediate contact: their parents.
While Tough details an overarching and optimistic recovery, particularly highlighting some successful stories of inner city youth using their character strengths to persevere at four-year universities, he left out one critical discussion: the cost of higher education. Because inner-city and low-income students often have fewer of the advantages of their higher-income counterparts, including those character strengths that Tough indicates are essential for success, it is likely their bids at higher education will be thwarted due to cost. If, for some reason, they are able to initially pay for college, what happens when they drop out, as so many, statistically, are shown to do? Will pushing them further into debt without a degree help or hurt their prospects of success?
On the whole, “How Children Succeed” is a thoughtful, well-researched, and insightful read for teachers and parents. It gives parents ideas for how they can best set their children up for success in life, regardless of, or maybe in spite of, the school down the street. It gives educators ideas for a new approach in their own schools, possibilities for helping those students who society has not otherwise helped. And for the social reformers out there, it’s a great starting point, but as Tough would argue, there’s still much left to do.