A Feature Review of
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character
Reviewed by Joshua Neds-Fox.
With a subtitle like “Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” it’s hard not to think that How Children Succeed, Paul Tough’s second book, is being pitched to the politicized market of an election year. The contents, however, are hardly partisan; instead, Tough delivers a highly compassionate exploration of strategies to help impoverished children overcome the limitations of their circumstances. In many ways, this book is a natural followup to Tough’s previous title, “Whatever It Takes,” a profile of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone, the ambitious project Tough first chronicled in the pages of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Canada knew the devastating effects of poverty on personal potential, and he was no longer satisfied to save one in a hundred children from that fate. He wanted to save them all. Whatever It Takes examined Canada’s Herculean effort to cast a net over a handful of city blocks in Harlem, a net so fine that no child in the target zone could possibly slip through. In engineering his project, Canada employed — and Tough explored — a grab bag of scientific and/or data-driven techniques to try to effect change in children.
Tough exhibits the same obsessions here: he’s fascinated with how we might apply sociological and biological science to address the problems associated with systemic childhood poverty. The takeaway, if it can be boiled down to a sentence or two, is this: the characteristics that determine success in life have far less to do with intelligence or learning and far more to do with what are called “executive functions”: self-control, delayed gratification, managed emotion, grit, perseverance, optimism. And these functions can on the one hand be learned, but are also negatively impacted by prolonged, regular exposure to stress, as is normative in severe poverty. So that any scientific approach that can mitigate stress and impart character in an impoverished child’s life will improve her future outcomes. Tough’s singular focus suggests a deep compassion for kids trapped in a life-limiting cycle of poverty, poor schools, childhood trauma, lack of opportunity. And he’s deeply invested in what can only be called a technological approach to fixing those problems: if we could only apply the right tools, either at the right age or in the right populations or at the right scale, we would see children changed. Tough tackles the problem broadly, examining a wide range of topics — charter schools with daring models of character-based education, inner city chess programs, the science of rat parenting, college retention strategies. Sometimes the book reads like an unending string of scientific studies, all targeting some aspect of brain or biology, or social adaptation or attachment or achievement. The acronyms alone are bewildering: ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences), YAP (Youth Advocate Programs), LG (Licking and grooming, a shorthand for the behaviors of those rat parents which best alleviated stress in baby rats, and which correspondingly best predicted the future success of those same baby rats. Adult children of high-LG rat parents tended to be highly successful rats. Parenting interventions that impart human equivalents to LG behaviors appear to confer the same advantages).
Early in the book, Tough writes about Keitha Jones, a high school senior on the south side of Chicago who scores high on ACE — sexually molested by a cousin, her mother addicted to crack cocaine. Assigned to an intensive mentoring program for the highest-risk students, Jones pulls around against almost impossible odds. Her first advocate is a poor match, but her second, 31-year-old Lanita Reed, proves a perfect fit, a combination older sister/surrogate mother. “Reed is a spiritual person, a regular churchgoer,” Tough writes. “At Reed’s suggestion, Keitha started praying. ‘I asked God just to heal me,’ she said…” Keitha goes from one of the worst, most problematic students at her school, almost certain to fail out, to a freshman in college studying for a cosmetology degree.
Which reminds me of “the superhero strategy,” the term Canada (in Whatever It Takes) uses to describe the efforts of dynamic, larger-than-life, often self-sacrificial teachers, mentors, social workers and the like, who intervene in the lives of children. The scientific approach, Canada says, will work at a young age, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to have these superheroes, too, saving older kids one at a time, so that the younger kids will have a competing vision of what it means to grow up poor in Harlem. Sounds almost theological. And the example of Jones and Reed suggests that if character transformation can be effected technologically, that isn’t the *only* way it happens. It also happens (or can happen) when kids are in mentoring relationships with people of character. Tough implicitly credits these relationships all through the book, profiling chess coach Elizabeth Spiegel and inner city student James Black, Kewauna Lerma and an unnamed English teacher. Both these children achieve amazing successes. And while I don’t want to generalize from Tough’s anecdotes, it is interesting that the success story he chooses to feature in Reed and Jones involves something very close to discipleship, an older Christian teaching a protege the way she should go. The context is a social program, but the instance introduces a variable that makes it hard to determine causation: a very particular Superhero who lays out a very peculiar competing vision.
Tough has faith that we can improve the odds for the poorest children. In a moving coda, he confesses that he himself took his own tremendous advantages for granted, dropping out of college to find himself as a young man. He shares his anger at the circumstances that limit these kids’ opportunities and his admiration for their efforts to overcome those same limitations. The reader feels something of Tough’s fascination with his subject — its scope, its intractability, the potential in the programs and strategies he chronicles. The force of his argument — that we have the tools we need to address the problems we see — is strong. In that strength, and between the lines, you can read the animating energy that has driven Paul Tough through two books now, and which informs Reed and Jones’s story. It may just be the true secret of how children succeed; it is, of course, love, and love makes for a compelling read.