How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

Mar 11, 2015

Aside from one semester of extreme homesickness, college and I had a pretty good run together. I enjoyed my classes, my grades were good overall (except for cursed dictation), and I liked my professors. If you looked at my college career, you would call it a success.

And if I had to blame (or thank) one thing for that success, it would definitely be my ability to work hard. I couldn't ace a test without studying for it, but I sure knew how to set my alarm for 5:15 am and hit the ground running.

Given my experience, I can't say I was surprised to hear Paul Tough's findings in How Children Succeed. His basic premise is that we focus too much in schools on grades and test scores and not enough on character strengths such as zest, curiosity, and optimism. There's a growing amount of research that says character matters . . . and in a really big way.

I listened to this book and didn't take as many notes as I should have (read: none). That was great while I was listening to it; I was just absorbing all this information thinking, Wow, that's fascinating. Yep, totally agree with that. Huh, who would've thought?, but now my brain is having a really difficult time recalling names and details: Where was that school that used the KIPP program? What are the seven character strengths? Who was that researcher?

However, I can tell you this: much of the book focuses on a list of seven character strengths (sometimes referred to as "non-cognitive skills") that are being implemented and taught within the curriculum of over a hundred schools in the U.S. Known as KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), Paul Tough specifically contrasts its effectiveness in two very schools: one inner-city, low-income school and another wealthy, upper-class school.

The question that I found so fascinating was: How do you teach these non-cognitive skills (grit or gratitude or curiosity) in such a way that they are not only memorized but also applied? I think we're all familiar with the motivational posters in school hallways that remind students that "West High students are __________ (fill in the blank with character strength of choice)." But how do you take it from that (a poster on the wall) to high school/college graduation, successful career, and contributing member of society?

One school that Tough reported on used a "character report card," which seemed a little presumptuous to me. Others tried the aforementioned posters, hoping students would pick it up through osmosis. Some made sure that teachers referred often to the character traits in lectures and one-on-one interactions.

For my part, I couldn't help thinking that while I think it's great if teachers are talking about and demonstrating self-control and gratitude in the classroom, it's even better if the parents are teaching it in the home. The more I learn and read about education, the more I personally realize that there is absolutely no substitute for a good home life. It just about breaks my heart to think about all of the thousands of kids who go to school every day with so much trauma in their lives that doing well in school falls very low on their list of priorities. But fixing America's homes? That's a discussion for another day.

Anyway, the part of the book I found most fascinating was about, of all things, chess. Paul Tough told about an inner-city middle school in Brooklyn that apparently has one of the best chess teams in the country. He used this school to show how kids of all intelligence levels can benefit from the discipline required by the game and learn valuable life skills from the cycle of winning and losing. However, I was mainly interested in hearing about chess itself--about people who practice for 14 hours a day; about tournaments that last for hours; about ratings and strategies and mistakes. It was just a completely unknown world to me. Maybe I found it so interesting because Aaron's been participating in his little chess club at school this year (and, I don't want to criticize him or anything, but I think he spends more time looking at the ceiling than at the board; maybe he's planning out his next seven moves, but I highly doubt it.). 

Unlike some books that belabor all the things that are wrong with our educational system but don't really offer any ideas for what we can do about it, I thought How Children Succeed was very positive and hopeful overall. There are a number of programs already in place that are giving kids the tools they need to succeed, and I heard Paul Tough say in an interview that he thinks within the next five years we'll really refine the ideas that work the very best. I don't know if I'm that optimistic (maybe that's a character strength I need to work on!), but I do think putting the focus on non-cognitive abilities is a step in the right direction.

Paul Tough says these character strengths are not inborn necessarily but can be learned and developed. What do you think? How would you teach grit? Or zest? Or curiosity?


  1. I enjoyed this book too, Amy. I think that like with most things, people may have an innate predisposition to some of these traits, but that this can be nurtured (or squandered). Like you, I suspect that more of this nurturing (or not) will happen in the home than directly in the schools. My view is that you teach these things in a million little ways. By not doing your children's homework for them even if they are finding it difficult, by saying "no, that's not right, why don't you try again", etc. I've never forgotten the parent here in the Bay Area who sued the school because his kid was kicked out of an honors class for cheating. Such the wrong message to send his kid, on multiple levels, if he ever wants said kid to succeed on his own merits. Anyway, I enjoyed your thoughts on the book!

    1. I think you're right, and I really find it so comforting that even if our kids are not naturally predisposed to some of these strengths, we can encourage and help them acquire them. And, as you said, I think a lot of those skills are learned in the home as we let them fail and make mistakes in a safe and loving environment. I found it really interesting that some of the kids from the poorer schools were actually better equipped for success than the wealthy kids because they've had to overcome a lot of challenges and obstacles (as long as those challenges aren't also traumatic).

    2. Another book with a similar theme is Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or "Fat Envelopes" by Madeline Levine. Dr. Levine is a counselor who worked a lot with privileged kids, and observed how having too much done for them can end up hurting them. Her earlier book is called The Price of Privilege.

    3. I've heard of her books but haven't read them. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. I've seen this book at the library, but haven't picked it up, partly because I figure it's too late for my kids now (both teenagers). But it dovetails with the stuff I hear about how praise works, which matches my experience -- you praise effort, not quality: You kept going until you figured it out! not: Boy are you smart! So you can help the kid develop the quality you want. "You figured out a way to make your friend feel better and try again" not "You are a good friend." to develop compassion.


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