Commentary Magazine

Meddling with Mettle

How Children Succeed:
Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
By Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 
256 pages

Less than a week before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. Texas, the latest case to test the constitutionality of affirmative action, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article about a meeting of college-admissions counselors. Race, it turns out, wasn’t “the four-letter-word everybody’s talking about.” Rather, it was grit. It appears that college administrators now want to test for this quality—“the habit of overcoming challenges, of learning from mistakes instead of being defeated by them”—and incorporate their findings into the application process. 

This is largely due to the work of Paul Tough, whose new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, has created a sensation, and for good reason.

Tough begins his account of how children succeed with some explanation of the latest research on why they fail. The primary cause, he writes, is stress. Scientists have come to believe that our stress-response system “evolved to react to brief and acute stresses [that] worked well when humans were out on the savanna running from predators.” In our time, though, that stress-response system kicks into gear when we consider issues that are not life-threatening—from whether we’ll get promotions at work to whether our romantic relationships will work out. The process of managing this intense physical reaction, known as allostasis, creates “wear and tear on the body.” 

For children who have grown up in unstable environments, the effects of allostasis—high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, diabetes—can be devastating. Some of the behaviors associated with these environments (smoking, overeating, and drug use) account for those health effects. But scientists have found that even absent these behaviors, the health of people who grow up with childhood trauma is far worse. It isn’t the traumas themselves, as Tough explains, so much as the body’s constant reactions to them. 

Tough compares these reactions to an internal fleet of “superdeluxe firetrucks” sent out to respond to every problem. Of one 18-year-old he interviewed he writes: “When she was a child, her fire alarm went off constantly at top volume: My mom and stepmom are punching each other; I’m never going to see my dad again; no one’s home to make me dinner; my foster family isn’t going to take care of me. Every time the alarm went off, her stress-response system sent out all the trucks, sirens blaring. The firefighters smashed in some windows and soaked some carpets, and by the time [she] turned 18, her biggest problem wasn’t the threats she faced from the world around her. It was the damage the firefighters had done.”

The research is depressing, because it seems to diagnose a problem without a solution. But Tough insists that there are ways around it. Just as a study of rats showed that mothers who licked and groomed their young with greater frequency produced offspring who were better at mazes, so babies who form a secure attachment to their caregivers in early childhood can overcome a greater degree of stress when they get older. In one case, foster parents were given a particular kind of training in responding to infants’ cues “more attentively and warmly and calmly.” Researchers found that “after just 10 home visits, children…show higher rates of secure attachment and their cortisol levels [a stress hormone] are indistinguishable from those of typical, well-functioning, non-foster-care children.”

Different strategies must be used when children reach a certain age in order to improve their chances of success. Once children feel secure, parents must foster other traits. As with babies, biology and environment can affect the outcomes of older children, but Tough describes how the inculcation of a set of character traits can help students overcome these challenges.

He describes how KIPP Academy, the successful charter-school network that began in 1995, initially had a very good record of getting kids into college but a low level of college completion. Tough describes founder David Levin’s reaction: “Every month or so, it seemed, he would get word that another student had decided to drop out. He took the college data personally: What could he have done differently?” Over time, “Levin noticed something curious: 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.”

Levin had tried to incorporate the teaching of “character education” into KIPP, but it was not until he read Learned Optimism by the University of Pennsylvania researcher Martin E.P. Seligman that he understood “optimism is a learnable skill, not an inborn trait.” 

Tough writes that Levin recognized many of the problematic attitudes of his students in Seligman’s writing. Pessimists, he learned,

tend to react to negative events by explaining them as permanent, personal and pervasive….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.

In collaboration with Seligman and the headmaster of Riverdale Academy (a wealthy prep school near KIPP in the Bronx), Levin developed a character-education program to teach kids grit. When Tough visited KIPP afterward, the effects were stark. The six-year college-graduation rate of KIPP alums went from 21 percent for the class of 2003 to 46 percent for the class of 2005.

What makes this notion about grit so appealing is not just that it fits in with an American sense of fairness, which it does, but that it offers teachers, parents, and policymakers strategies for improving the outcomes of kids who were born into difficult circumstances. While biology plays a significant role in how we turn out physically, emotionally, intellectually—it is even more significant than we once thought—Tough argues that biology can be overcome.

In the famous “marshmallow test,” researchers offered children the choice between one marshmallow now or two later if they could resist eating the first marshmallow for 15 minutes. The children who resisted had consistently better outcomes later in life. It is not merely that the ability to delay gratification is beneficial. It is also that the children who succeeded employed certain strategies to do so. They created their own distractions, talking or singing to themselves. Researchers were also able to help children wait longer by encouraging them to think about the marshmallow differently.

But kids want marshmallows. Even if they wait 15 minutes, they know they will be rewarded. Matters get more complex when you tell kids that if they try hard for 13 years of school and then another four years of college, a good job and a steady income will follow. The tangible value of postponing gratification until adulthood to secure benefits that don’t seem like benefits will never be apparent to children. In another experiment, researchers were able to increase the IQ scores of children in low-income homes by offering them M&Ms as an incentive to do well. But in terms of life outcomes, it was their first score—the one before being offered the candy—that was more indicative of life outcomes. It’s the kids who have a kind of “internal motivation,” who are willing to do their best on tests even when there is no chocolate or any other immediate benefit waiting at the other end, who do well.

Tough explains how a study of results on something called the “coding speed test,” a straight-forward yet mind-numbing exam, turned out to be a good indicator of “conscientiousness.” Intelligence didn’t matter so much as whether the test takers were willing to try hard on a boring test. Scores on the coding test “were every bit as reliable a predictor of [the test takers’] adult wages as their cognitive test scores.” Conscientious people commit fewer crimes, stay married longer, and smoke and drink less.

Tough’s book goes far in explaining how teaching cognitive skills will not be enough to help underprivileged children succeed. It is a smart, concise, and well-documented case. But in his effort to present the diagnoses and prescriptions in the book as bipartisan, he gives short shrift to those who have argued most fervently against the panacea of self-esteem above all and building character as the key to human achievement. 

Tough acknowledges that conservatives have always said character matters. He writes: “Where the typical conservative argument on poverty falls short is that it often stops right there: Character matters…and that’s it. There’s not much society can do until poor people shape up and somehow develop better character. In the meantime, the rest of us are off the hook. We can lecture poor people and we can punish them if they don’t behave the way we tell them to, but that’s where our responsibility ends.”

Tough is wrong here both on the general level and the specific. One of the most generous conservative philanthropies around today is the John Templeton Foundation. Tough might have come across the name because it has been a great supporter of the research of Martin Seligman and others who have followed in his footsteps.

Generally speaking, though, Tough misses the point. Conservatives don’t believe that “there’s not much society can do.” We believe there’s not much government can do. But that won’t stop government from trying. While Tough waits around for a federal bureaucracy to implement the changes he recommends, there is research in his own book that families, churches, mentoring programs, urban Catholic schools, and other private entities might want to consider in their quests to help kids succeed.

All in all, How Children Succeed is a highly readable tour through some interesting research—although, as with all such books of the Malcolm Gladwell type, it is hard for a layperson to determine how much the author is cherrypicking from hundreds of studies. And much of what is here is far from novel.

The idea that infants need to form secure attachments in order to grow into well-adjusted adults has been a moot point since the British psychiatrist John Bowlby developed attachment theory in the 1950s from studying orphaned children. It’s one thing to adapt Bowlby’s ideas to the lives of children growing up in one-parent families in the midst of general social and behavioral chaos. It’s quite another for Tough to summon up the psychologist Madeline Levine (author of The Price of Privilege, a book leaning heavily on her practice with affluent kids in Silicon Valley) to broaden his claim about the dangers of faulty attachment to the very rich.

He writes that wealthy parents “are more likely than others to be emotionally distant from their children,” and he suggests that distance may be the reason for the higher level of depression in adolescent girls in upper-class families. To be sure, rich adolescent girls have their share of Gossip Girl problems, but Paul Tough may want to pay a visit to the Mommy and Me classes in New York City and Westchester before assuming the key issue for such children is a too-distant mother. Quite the opposite.

About the Author

Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.

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