Just How Does a Child Succeed?

Just How Does a Child Succeed?

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough was given to me as a Christmas present.   It’s no intriguing murder mystery or page turning historical fiction, but it is a perfect book for the “edu-geek”  like me (the one who would much rather pick up Psychology Today than Cosmo from the magazine rack.)

Upon hearing the title, my sister asked- what advice does it have for parents?   Though the title might suggest this book is a parental how-to guide, it is not.

What is of interest for parents is the discussion of character and how it has more to do with success than previously thought.   We are very familiar with the notion that intelligence and test scores go hand in hand with success.  The author, Tough is arguing that “qualities that matter most have to do with character:  skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.”

Anyone who has worked with a group of children- whether it be teaching, coaching, or even as a youth group leader has probably come across a child or two that might not possess as much self-control as others.  You may have noticed a child who just doesn’t seem to have the level of “stick-to-it-ness” that the rest of the group might.  It is apparent that teaching that football play or explaining that service project might take more effort on your part to reach that particular child.  It is easy to accept that these character traits might affect learning.

One thing that might be harder to accept is the importance of letting your child fail.  Yes, fail.

The natural instinct of most parents is to do anything that will help their child succeed.   According to researchers and educators in the book, what is really needed to build self-control, grit, and perseverance is failure.  On some level, “what kids need more than anything is a little hardship, some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.”  In taking part 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.”

Parents of accelerated or gifted students might be nodding their heads about now.  They have probably seen that their "straight A" students are very unlikely to take on any task that might result in failure.   Who can argue against how gratifying it feels to accomplish a difficult task from time to time and the character benefits it provides?

This is only one small aspect of the book.  It starts out with fascinating new information on how stressful environments affect brain development and learning.  New information on parental attachment and bonding is discussed and the role it plays in children’s confidence and future success.  Much of the focus of the book relays how this information could help improve the lives of children in poverty who are up against what seems insurmountable odds.  A program applying this information and mentioned in the book, One Goal is based in Chicago.

How Children Succeed enlightens readers with recent research and studies that make a very strong case for paying more attention to character building.  Definitely a worthwhile read!

Some other books on my virtual edu-geek bookshelf are:

  • Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
  • Outliers:  The Story of Success
  • The Death and Life of the Great American School System
  • The World is Flat
  • The Book Whisperer
  • Bringing Words to Life
  • The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
  • Freakonomics:  A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
  • There Are No Children Here
  • Savage Inequalities


How are you modeling character for the youth in your lives- students, athletes, and children?  Does your school have a worthwhile program that features character building? Any other good reads you can suggest?

Next time you attend a parent-teacher conference, will you ask about your child's character?  For more tips on conferences, read my previous blog post.  Teachers, would you feel comfortable discussing student character with parents?

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  • Really enjoyed the column. Looking forward to reading the book.

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