How Children Succeed | Notes & Review

Paul Tough. How Children Succeed; Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Mariner Books, 2013. (231 pages)

How-Children-Succeed-Hi, article.


…the cognitive hypothesis: the belief, rarely expressed aloud but commonly held nonetheless, that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills — the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns — and that the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible. The cognitive hypothesis has become so universally accepted that it is easy to forget that it is actually a relatively new invention. (xiii)

But in the past decade, and especially in the past few years, a disparate congregation of economists, educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists have begun to produce evidence that calls into question many of the assumptions behind the cognitive hypothesis. What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character. (xv)

This book is about an idea, one that is growing clearer and gathering momentum in classrooms and clinics and labs and lecture halls across the country and around the world. According to this new way of thinking, the conventional wisdom about child development over the past few decades has been misguided. We have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children, and we have been using the wrong strategies to help nurture and teach those skills. (xv)

cf. James Heckman

Those traits — an inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification; the tendency to follow through on a plan — also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace, and in life generally. (xix)

How do our experiences in childhood make us the adults we become? (xxiv)

The premise behind the work is simple, if radical: We haven’t managed to solve these problems because we’ve been looking for solutions in the wrong places. If we want to improve the odds for children in general, and for poor children in particular, we need to approach childhood anew, to start over with some fundamental questions about how parents affect their children; how human skills develop; how character is formed. (xiv)

At its core, this book is about an ambitious and far-reaching campaign to solve some of the most pervasive mysteries of life: Who succeeds and who fails? Why do some children thrive while others lose their way? And what can any of us do to steer an individual child — or a whole generation of children — away from failure and toward success? (xxiv)


…you can’t expect to solve the problems of a school without taking into account what’s happening in the community. – Elizabeth Dozier

What effect does poverty have on children? (7)

cf. The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning gold into lead by Vincent Felitti. [a.k.a., “ACE score.” In sum, as the number of ACE’s increased, the number of issues also increased.]

The adversity these patients had experienced in childhood was making them sick through a pathway that had nothing to do with behavior. (11)

…scientists have reached a consensus in the past decade that the key channel through which early adversity causes damage to developing bodies and brains is stress. (12)

Our bodies regulate stress using a system called the HPA axis. HPA stands for “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal,” and that tongue-twisting phrase describes the way that chemical signals cascade through the brain and the body in reaction to intense situations. (12)

Overloading the HPA axis, especially in infancy and childhood, produces all kinds of serious and long-lasting negative effects — physical, psychological, and neurological. (13)

The tricky thing about this process, though, is that it’s not actually the stress itself that messes us up. It is the body’s reaction to the stress. … According to [Bruce] McEwen, the process of managing stress, which he labeled allostasis, is what creates wear and tear on the body. I the body’s stress-management systems are overworked, they eventually break down under the strain. (13)

Although the human stress-response system is highly complex in design, in practice it has all the subtlety of a croquet mallet. (13)

…the HPA axis can’t distinguish between different types of threat, so it activates every defense, all at once, in response to any threat. Unfortunately, this means you often experience stress responses that are not at all helpful… (13)

The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments, generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. (17)

In wealthy school districts, executive function has become the new educational catch phrase, the most recent thing to evaluate and diagnose. But among scientists who study children in poverty, executive functions are a newly attractive field for another reasons: improving executive function seems like a potentially promising vehicle for narrowing the achievement gap between poor kids and middle-class kids. (18)

Most broadly, they refer to the ability to deal with confusing and unpredictable situations and information. (18)

cf. The Stroop test. Say the color of the following words:


…utilizing your self-control in the emotional realm or the cognitive realm, that ability is crucially important to getting through the school day, whether you’re in kindergarten or your senior year of high school. (19)

It wasn’t poverty itself that was compromising the executive-function abilities of the poor kids. It was the stress that went along with it. (20)

The reason that researchers who care about the gap between rich and poor are so excited about executive functions is that these skills are not only highly predictive of success; they are also quite malleable, much more so than other cognitive skills. The prefrontal cortex is more responsive to intervention than other parts of the brain, and it stays flexible well into adolescence and early adulthood. So if we can improve a child’s environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase his prospects for success in a particularly efficient way. (21)

It is in early childhood that our brains and bodies are most sensitive to the effects of stress and trauma. But it is in adolescence that the damage that stress inflicts on us can lead to the most serious and long-lasting problems. (21)

Laurence Steinberg [cf. 10 Basic Principles of Good Parenting] … has analyzed two separate neurological systems that develop in childhood and early adulthood that together have a profound effect on the lives of adolescents. … The first, called the incentive processing system, makes you more sensation seeking, more emotionally reactive, more attentive to social information. … The second, called the cognitive control system, allows you to regulate all those urges. The reason the teenage years have always been such a perilous time, Steinberg says, is that the incentive processing system reaches its full power in early adolescence while the cognitive control system doesn’t finish maturing until you’re in your twenties. So for a few wild years, we are all madly processing incentives without a corresponding control system to keep our behavior in check. And if you combine that standard-issue whacked-out adolescent neurochemistry with an overloaded HPA axis, you’re got a particularly toxic brew. (21-22)

When we look at these kids and their behavior, it can all seem so mysterious. But at some point, what you’re seeing is just a complex series of chemical reactions. It’s the folding of a protein or the activation of a neuron. And what’s exciting about that is that those things are treatable. When you get down to the molecules, you realize, that’s where the healing lies. That’s where you’re discovering a solution. – Nadine Burke Harris

The reality is that most of us are inclined to feel nothing but sympathy and understanding toward the ten-year-old — he is a boy, after all, and clearly a victim. But toward the fourteen-year-old — not to mention the eighteen-year-old he will soon become — we usually feel something darker: anger and fear, or at least despair. What Burke Harris could see, of course, with the advantage of time and with her clinician’s perspective, was that the ten-year-old and the fourteen-year-old were the same child, reacting to the same environmental influences, buffeted by the same powerful neurochemical processes. (27)

…there is also some positive news in this research. (28)

Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment. This message can sound a bit warm and fuzzy, but it is rooted in cold, hard science. The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical. (28)

10. Attachment

When we consider the impact of parenting on children, we tend to think that the dramatic effects are going to appear at one end or the other of the parenting-quality spectrum. … But…research suggests is that regular good parenting — being helpful and attentive during a game of Jenga — can make a profound difference for a child’s future prospects. (33)

Some psychologists believe that the closest parallel to licking and grooming [a reference to a rat experiment cited] in humans can be found in a phenomenon called attachment. (33)

cf. John Bowlby & Mary Ainsworth, The Origins of Attachment Theory,” Patterns of Attachment, and Becoming Attached.

…the effect of early nurturance was exactly the opposite of what the behaviorists expected. Babies whose parents responded readily and fully to their cries in the first months of life were, at one year, more independent and intrepid than babies whose parents had ignored their cries. In preschool, the pattern continued … Warm, sensitive parental care, Ainsworth and Bowlby contended, created a “secure base” from which a child could explore the world. (33-34)

Attachment classification…was not absolute destiny — sometimes attachment relationships changed in the course of childhood, and some children with anxious attachments went on to thrive. (35)

The early nurturing attention from their mothers had fostered in them a resilience that acted as a protective buffer against stress. When the regular challenges of life emerged, even years later — an open-field test, a disagreement among strong-willed kindergartners — they were able, rats and humans like, to assert themselves, draw on reserves of self-confidence, and make their way forward. (37)

12. Parenting Interventions

Alicia Lieberman feels there are two important ideas missing from their analysis. The first is an explicit recognition of how plainly difficult it is for many parents in neighborhoods like Bayview-Hunters Point to form secure attachments with their children.

Often, the circumstances of a mother’s life overwhelm her natural coping capacity. When you are bombarded by poverty, uncertainty, and fear, it takes a superhuman quality to provide the conditions for a secure attachment. – Alicia Lieberman

In addition, a mother’s own attachment history can make her parenting challenge even greater: research from the Minnesota study and elsewhere shows that if a new mother experienced insecure attachment with her parents as a child (no matter what her class background), then it will be exponentially more difficult for her to provide a secure, nurturing environment for her own children. (37-38)

The other thing that is underemphasized in the Minnesota study, Lieberman said, is the fact that parents can overcome histories of trauma and poor attachment; that they can change their approach to their children from one that produces anxious attachment to one that promotes secure attachment and healthy functioning. (38)

…the potential for growth and improvement is much greater when it comes to attachment. Unlike a subpar vocabulary, anxiety-producing parenting can be undone with a relatively minor intervention. Which means that the cycle of poor attachment can be broken for good. If a low-income mother with attachment issues gets the right kind of intervention, she can become a mother who forms a secure attachment with her child. And that will potentially make a huge difference in that child’s life. (41)

It is hard to argue with the science behind early intervention. Those first few years matter so much in the healthy development of a child’s brain; they represent a unique opportunity to make a difference in a child’s future. But one of the most promising facts about programs that target emotional and psychological and neurological pathways is that they can be quite effective later on in childhood too — much more so than cognitive interventions. Pure IQ is stubbornly resistant to improvement after about age eight. But executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood. (48)

…teenagers also have the ability — or at least the potential — to rethink and remake their lives in a way that younger children do not. …adolescence can be a time for a different kind of turning point, the profoundest sort of transformation: the moment when a young person manages to turn herself away from near-certain failure and begins to steer a course toward success. (48)


The way Vance sees it today, KIPP set him up for high school very well academically, but it didn’t prepare him emotionally or psychologically. (51)

2. Learned Optimism

The students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP. Instead, they seemed to be the ones who possessed certain other gifts, skills like optimism and resilience and social agility. (52)

cf. Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism.

In Learned Optimism Sligman wrote that for most people, depression was not an illness, as most psychologists believed, but simply a “severe low mood” that occurred” when we harbor pessimistic beliefs about the cause of our setbacks.” If you want to avoid depression and improve your life, Seligman counseled, you need to refashion your “explanatory style,” to create for yourself a better story about why good and bad things happen to you. (53-54)

Pessimists, Seligman wrote, tend to react to negative events by explaining them as permanent, personal, and pervasive. (Seligman calls these “the three P’s.”) Failed a test? It’s not because you didn’t prepare well; it’s because you’re stupid. If you get turned down for a date, there’s no point in asking someone else; you’re simply unlovable. Optimists, by contrast, look for specific, limited, short-term explanations for bad events, and as a result, in the face of a setback, they’re more likely to pick themselves up and try again. (54)

…there was always this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful. Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. – Dominic Randolph

4. Character Strengths

cf. Christopher Peterson & Angela Duckworth, “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals and Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification.

Moral laws were limiting when it came to character because they reduced virtuous conduct to a simple matter of obedience to a higher authority. “Virtues,” they wrote,” are much more interesting than laws.” According to Seligman and Peterson, the value of these twenty-four character strengths did not come from their relationship to any particular system of ethics but from their practical benefit — what you could actually gain by possessing and expressing them. Cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to “the good life,” a life that was not just happy but meaningful and fulfilling. (59)

For many of us, character refers to something innate and unchanging, a core set of attributes that define one’s very essence. Seligman and Peterson defined character in a different way: a set of abilities or strengths that are very much changeable — entirely malleable, in fact. They are skills you can learn; they are skills you can practice; and they are skills you can teach. (59)

In practice, though, when educators try to teach character, they often collide with those moral laws. (59)

The thing that I think is great about the character-strengths approach is that it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment. The inevitable problem with the values-and-ethics approach is you get into, well, Whose values? Whose ethics? – David Levin

The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves. Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging … To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect. – Angela Duckworth

cf. Walter Mischel and the famous marshmallow test:

[There are several examples of this online]

Mischel found that children were able to delay more effectively if they were given simple prompts to encourage them to think differently about the marshmallow. The more abstractly they thought about the treat, the longer they were able to delay. (63)

6. Motivation

The problem with self-control techniques like the ones that the most disciplined marshmallow resisters employed is that they work only when a child knows what he or she wants. (64)

Duckworth finds it useful to divide the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition. (64)

7. The Coding-Speed Test

This is the problem with trying to motivate people: No one really knows how to do it well. (66)

Part of the complexity is that different personality types respond to different motivations. (67)

Game 2715
Chin 3231
House 4232
Hat 4568

All you have to do is find the right number from the key above and then check that box (1C, 2A, 3C, etc.). It’s a snap, if a somewhat mind-numbing one. (68)

  A B C D E
1. hat 2715 4232 4568 3231 2864
2. house 4232 2715 4568 3231 2864
3. chin 4232 2715 3231 4568 2864

But what Segal’s experiment suggests is that it was actually their first score, the 79, that was more relevant to their future prospects. That was their equivalent of the coding-test score, the low-stakes, low-reward test that predicts how well someone is going to do in life. They may not have been low in IQ, but they were low in whatever quality it is that makes a person try hard on an IQ test without nay obvious incentive. And what Segal’s research shows is that that is a very valuable quality to possess. (69)

8. Conscientiousness

Over the past couple of decades, a consensus has emerged among personality psychologists that the most effective way to analyze the human personality is to consider it along five dimensions, known as the Big Five: agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, and conscientiousness. (70)

People high in conscientiousness get better grades in high school and college; they commit fewer crimes; an they stay married longer. They live longer — and not just because they smoke and drink less. They have fewer strokes, lower blood pressure, and a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. “It would actually be nice if there were some negative things that went along with conscientiousness,” [Brent] Roberts told me. “But at this point it’s emerging as one of the primary dimensions of successful functioning across the lifespan. It really goes cradle to grave in terms of how well people do.” (71)

9. The Downside of Self-Control

To psychologists like Seligman and Peterson and Duckworth and Roberts, these results are a resounding demonstration of the importance of character to school success. To Bowles and Gintis, they were evidence that the school system was rigged to create a docile proletariat. Teachers rewarded repressed drones, according to Bowles and Gintis; they found that the students with the highest GPAs were the ones who scored the lowest on measures of creativity and independence, and the highest on measures of punctuality, delay of gratification, predictability, and dependability. Bowles and Gintis then consulted similar scales for office workers, and they found that supervisors judged their workforce the way teachers judged their students. They gave low ratings to employees with high levels of creativity and independence and high ratings to those workers with high levels of tact, punctuality, dependability, and delay of gratification. To Bowles an Gintis, these findings confirmed their thesis: Corporate America’s rulers wanted to staff their offices with bland and reliable sheep, so they created a school system that selected for those traits. (72)

[VIA: To which I say, “AAARRRGGGHHH!!!”]

Wouldn’t it be cool, … if each student graduated from school with not only a GPA but also a CPA (for character point average)? (76)

Overindulging kids, with the intention of giving them everything and being loving, but at the expense of their character — that’s huge in our population. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have at Riverdale. – K.C. Cohen

This is an issue for all parents, of course, not just affluent ones. It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we know — on some level, at least — that 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. As a parent, you struggle with these thorny questions every day, and if you make the right call even half the time, you’re lucky. (84)

If your premise is that your students are lacking in deep traits like grit and gratitude and self-control, you’re implicitly criticizing the parenting they’ve received — which means you’re implicitly criticizing your employers. (85)

Traditionally, the purpose of a school like Riverdale is not to raise the ceiling on a child’s potential achievement in life but to raise the floor, to give him the kinds of connections and credentials that will make it very hard for hi ever to fall out of the upper class. (85)

The problem,…is that the best way for a young person to build character is for him to attempt something where there is a real and serious possibility of failure. 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. (85)

…what is going on in a moment like that isn’t academic instruction at all, or even discipline; it’s therapy. Specifically, it’s a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy, the practical psychological technique that provides the theoretical underpinning for the whole positive psychology field. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, involves using the conscious mind to recognize negative or self-destructive thoughts or interpretations and to (sometimes literally) talk yourself into a better perspective. (91)

14. Good Habits

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is just one example of what psychologists call metacognition, an umbrella term that means, broadly, thinking about thinking. (91)

Optimists favor indulging, which means imagining the future they’d like to achieve…and vividly envisioning all the good things that will go along with it… Pessimists tend to use a strategy Oettingen calls dwelling, which involves thinking about all the things that will get int he way of their accomplishing their goals. (92)

The third method is called mental contrasting, and it combines elements of the other two methods. (93)

Just fantasizing about doing your math homework every day next semester — that feels really good right then. But you don’t go out and do anything. When I go into a lot of schools, I see posters that say ‘Dream it and you can achieve it!’ But we need to get away from positive fantasizing about how we’re all going to grow up and be rich and famous, and start thinking about the obstacles that now stand in the way of getting to where we want to be. – Angela Duckworth

Rules…are a metacognitive substitute for willpower. (93-94)

…conscientious people don’t go around consciously deciding to act virtuously all the time. They’ve just made it their default response to do the “good” thing, meaning the more socially acceptable or long-term-benefit-enhancing option. (94)

15. Identity

[“group identity” is a.k.a. “peer pressure”] …stereotype threat. If you give a person a subtle psychological cue having to do with his group identity before a test of intellectual or physical ability, [Claude] Steele showed, you can have a major effect on how well he performs. (96)

Regardless of the facts on the malleability of intelligence, students do much better academically if they believe intelligence is malleable. (97)

16. Report Cards

[Carol] Dweck’s notion that students do better when they think they can improve their intelligence applies to character as well. At least, that is the idea behind the character report card — that presenting character to students not as set of fixed traits but as a series of constantly developing attributes will inspire them to improve those traits. (98)

If you’re going to be a good teacher, you have to believe in malleable intelligence. And character is equally malleable. If you teach kids to pay attention to character, then their character will transform. – Mike Witter

In order to really buy into the character report card, you have to believe in malleable character, and I don’t know if every teacher is there yet. I mean, how many times have you heard a grownup say, ‘That’s just how I am! That’s me. Get used to it!’? But if you don’t believe that it applies to you, then how can you believe that it applies to children? – Mike Witter


Two of the most important executive functions are cognitive flexibility and cognitive self-control. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to see alternative solutions to problems, to think outside the box, to negotiate unfamiliar situations. Cognitive self-control is the ability to inhibit an instinctive or habitual response and substitute a more effective, less obvious one. (114)

Perhaps what pushes middle-school students to concentrate and practice as maniacally as Spiegel’s chess players do is the unexpected experience of someone taking them seriously, believing in their abilities, and challenging them to improve themselves. (120-121)

Chess is a creative and beautiful pursuit, which allows us to experience a wide range of uniquely human characteristics. [The game] is a celebration of existential freedom, in the sense that we are blessed with the opportunity to create ourselves through our actions. In choosing to play chess, we are celebrating freedom above utility.

cf. Mihaly Csikszentmihali, Flow.

…when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.

Sir Karl Popper wrote that the nature of scientific thought was such that one could never truly verify scientific theories; the only way to test the validity of any particular theory was to prove it wrong, a process he labeled falsification. This idea made its way into cognitive science with the observation that most people are actually quite bad at falsification — not just in science but in daily life. When testing a theory, however large or small, an individual doesn’t instinctively look for evidence that contradicts it; he looks for data that prove him right, a tendency known as confirmation bias. that tendency and the ability to overcome it turn out to be crucial elements in chess success. (138)

Try it: What’s your first instinct about the rule governing these numbers? And what’s another string you might test with the experimenter in order to find out if your guess is right?

2 – 4 – 6

[The answer is below §]

…the reason we’re all so bad at games like this is the tendency toward confirmation bias: It feels much better to find evidence that confirms what you believe to be true than to find evidence that falsifies what you believe to be true. Why go out in search of disappointment? (140)

…the Eeyore-like experts, by contrast, were more likely to see terrible outcomes lurking around every corner. They were able to falsify their hypothesis and thus avoid deadly traps. (140)


…over the past few years, it has become clear that the United States does not so much have a problem of limited and unequal college access; it has a problem of limited and unequal college completion. (150)

So we are left with a conundrum: Why are so many American students dropping out of college just as a college degree has become so valuable and just as young people in the rest of the world have begun to graduate in such remarkable numbers? (150)

2. The Finish Line

…whether or not a student is able to graduate from a decent American college doesn’t necessarily have all that much to do with how smart he or she is. It has to do, instead, with that same list of character strengths that produce high GPAs in middle school and high school. “In our view…high school grades reveal much more than mastery of content. They reveal qualities of motivation and perseverance — as well as the presence of good study habits and time management skills — that tell us a great deal about the chances that a student will complete a college program.” (153)

In each case, a teacher or mentor found a way to help a student achieve a rapid and unexpected transformation by using what James Heckman would call noncognitive skills and David Levin would call character strengths. What if we could do that for large numbers of teenagers — not to help them attain chess mastery or persuade them to quit fighting in school but to help them develop precisely those mental skills and character strengths they would need to graduate from college? (154)

It seemed that what [Michele] Stefl was attempting to do was convince her students that not just their intelligence an their character but their very destinies were malleable; that their past performance was not an indication of their future results. (165)

Noncognitive skills like resilience and resourcefulness and grit are highly predictive of success in college. And they can help our students compensate for some of the inequality they have faced in the education system. – Jeff Nelson


It is always hard, the eighteen-year-old me wrote, to quit doing something that everyone tells you you’re good at in order to do something you’ve never tried before. (178)

…to me, the most profound discovery this new generation of neuroscientists has made is the powerful connection between infant brain chemistry and adult psychology. (182)

Chemistry is not destiny, certainly. But these scientists have demonstrated that the most reliable way to produce an adult who is brave and curious and kind and prudent is to ensure that when he is an infant, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functions well. And how do you do that? It is not magic. First, as much as possible, you protect him from serious trauma and chronic stress; then, even more important, you provide him with a secure, nurturing relationship with at least one parent and ideally two. That’s not the whole secret of success, but it is a big, big part of it. (182)

…we need to help him learn to manage failure. This idea — the importance of learning how to deal with and learn from your own failures — is a common thread in many of the chapters in this book. (183)

So if poverty is at least as big an issue today as it was in the 1960s, why have we mostly stopped talking about it — in public, at least? I think the answer has partly to do with the psychology of public intellectuals. The War on Poverty left some very deep scars on the well-educated idealists who waged it, creating a kind of postraumatic stress disorder for policy wonks. (186-187) Something else happened in the past decade or so that also helps explain why the poverty debate disappeared: it merged with the education debate. (187)

This is the downside to conflating the education debate with the poverty debate — you can get distracted from the real issue. You start thinking that the only important question is, How do we improve teacher quality?, when really that is just a small part of a much broader and more profound question: What can we as a country do to significantly improve the life chances of millions of poor children? (191)

5. The politics of Disadvantage

Talking about the influence of family on the success and failure of poor children can be an uncomfortable proposition. (194)

…this science suggests a very different reality. It says that the character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up. That means the rest of us — society as a whole — can do an enormous amount to influence their development in children. (196)

— VIA —

This was another one of those books that kept my heart pounding, and my soul crying out, both out of anguish for the past, but also for the very present hope and reality that things can and ought be better for our children, and our world.

Not only does Tough provide excellent research, he provides a tremendous amount of hope. I am daunted, however, by the task that is set before us, primarily because of the confirmation bias that he discusses (that many will dismiss this work a priori). Second, the debate, as he mentions is quite contentious. However, I would contend that the program Tough (and his sources) set before us worthy of our attention, and could only add great value to the challenges of youth and education.

I do hear a small voice in the background saying, “I told you so,” the voice of generations and traditions that are in our distant and not-to-distant past. Regardless, I do believe we are able to listen once again to the wine of age-old wisdom in the wineskins of modern science and research. May we imbibe wisely.

I propose this book is a bit of a misnomer, however, as it is truly about how humanity succeed and flourish.

Every youth worker, parents, teacher, policy maker, etc., please read this.

§ If you tried 8 – 10 – 12, you would also be correct. You may say, “The rule is: even numbers, ascending in twos.” But you would be wrong. The rule is actually “any ascending numbers.” The only way to win the game is to guess strings of numbers that would prove your beloved hypothesis wrong — and that is something each of us is constitutionally driven to avoid. (139)

About VIA


  1. steve

    That’s an amazing review and I’m really grateful. It was so thorough that you saved me several hours of reading the book!

  2. Thanks for putting this comprehensive outline together. Very helpful.

  3. Fantastic work. I’ve been reading studies on-line about how to be a better parent and you do a superb job of analyzing, summarizing and expanding the work of others. I’m gonna go buy your book on Amazon. Great read. Thanks.

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