Grit, curiosity, character and success

Brains aren’ t everything writes Paul Tough (great name!) in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  Children who can work at a boring task, control their impulses, commit to a distant goal and learn from failure tend to do well in school, college and the workplace.

Affluent children may be shielded from failure, Tough writes. Poor kids learn about failure, but not about how to overcome it.

He profiles a KIPP school that reports to parents not just on their children’s academic performance but on their progress in developing noncognitive skills such as grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.  Experience has shown that KIPP graduates with strong academic skills may lose their way in college unless they have the fortitude to deal with academic, social and financial challenges.

Grit is translated as ganas at Downtown College Prep, the school in Our School.  “We’re not good now, but we can get better,” students told each other. Their teachers said, “Do the work.”

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” is poor advice, writes Tough. If you can dream it, foresee the obstacles and come up with a plan to deal with them, you can do it.

Programs that focus on raising low-income children’s cognitive ability show no long-standing gains, notes Thomas Toch in a Washington Monthly review of the book. It’s the behavioral and social skills that make a lasting difference.

Childhood psychological traumas, including neglect, abuse, parental addiction and divorce, can do lasting damage, researchers tell Tough.

Children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointment, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school.

. . . In particular, such stressors compromise the higher order thinking skills that allow students to sort out complex and seemingly contradictory information such as when the letter C is pronounced like K (what psychologists call “executive functioning”), and their ability to keep a lot of information in their heads at once, a skill known as “working memory” that’s crucial to success in school, college, and work.

Warm parenting or close relationships with caregivers can  help children develop resilience, Tough writes.

But what happens when parents aren’t on the job? Tough profiles a KIPP school that teaches character strengths and a college mentoring program for disadvantaged students, OneGoal.  He also looks at a success chess program at a New York City middle school: The coach forces players to analyze their failures. But I ended the book, which I strongly recommend, depressed about the prospects of schools or mentoring programs to save kids whose parents aren’t competent.

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  1. It’s unfortunate that it isn’t even acceptable to mention incompetent parents, particularly of the very young, poorly educated, never-married type, let alone discuss how we can head back to the two-married-parents-are-best-for-kids mindset and the associated need to discourage illegitimacy.

    However, when my DH and I were in k-8 (40s-50s), schools explicitly taught the importance of self-control, perseverence, planning ahead, working hard and learning from mistakes/failures. It usually wasn’t so labelled (certainly not in my DH’s Catholic school), but it was the Protestant/Puritan work ethic and it put generations of kids on the path to school, work and life success. Somewhere over the last 30-40 years, it’s become cultural imperialism and is therefore anathema, so we now have cultural subgroups who “can’t be expected” to sit still, be quiet, do their work,show self-control, be polite and follow the rules – thereby decreasing their likelihood of school, work and life success (and also for those willing-to-behave-and-learn kids who are trapped in chaotic classrooms with the former group).

    • BTW, I do not believe that poverty itself causes any particular problems – we really don’t have kids starving in the streets. Almost everyone in my childhood small town was poor and we had none of the problems that are now associated with poverty. The problem is the culture- behaviors, expectations etc. that creates poverty and the multi-generational cycle of pathologies which has destroyed the inner cities and is spreading elsewhere.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        There is a distinction that I have seen that I find useful: poor vs. broke. I think the terminology helps frame the issue.

        There is a risk of a “true scotsman” fallacy, but … if I lost all my money I become broke. I’m not poor because I have still have lots of social capital (skills … habits like saving for a rainy day … attitudes like valuing education). Many of the ‘poor’ Vietnamese boat people would have fit into this category. Germans and Japanese at the end of WW-II fit this category … their countries were in ruins, but they were broke, not poor.

        Alternately, ‘poor’ people who win the lottery often remain culturally poor. And many of them go back to material poverty within a few years.

        Growing up ‘poor’ can will cause problems like lack of future time orientation. Growing up ‘broke’ doesn’t have this problem.

        • Very right; good distinction. This has been true of many immigrant groups, including the Jews expelled from Spain by the Inquisition, (to England’s benefit) and the Huguenots who were expelled from France and migrated to England and South Carolina. Cubans who fled when Castro took over. All of these groups left countries worse by their absence and proved to be an advantage for the receiving countries. Those people were pushed out, but those who elected to emigrate have probably always differed significantly from those who stayed home.

          The mindset was true of the Scots; even though Scotland was a pretty poor country, the Scottish Enlightenment was a very significant influence on modern Britain and Europe.

          • greeneyeshade says:

            You almost have it right, but the Jews expelled from Spain didn’t go to England, at least not directly; they went to the Ottoman Empire (whose sultan thanked Ferdinand and Isabella for the present) and when Cromwell let them back into England they came from, I believe, Amsterdam. But on the whole you’re OK.

  2. I once had a high school student with two stepdads and a stepmom – the three were a bisexual ‘couple’ (?) that had adopted him from an orphanage in Russia years earlier. Weird, huh? Well, at least he had a roof over his head and three meals a day! And his three ‘parents’ did care about him. Just an odd situiation, though.

    • Being a DNA donor doesn’t really make you a “parent”, except in the most limited sense. Being there and on the job does; no matter how odd.

  3. Tough admits that we don’t know how to raise IQ. Good. What evidence is there that we know how to change a person’s character? Very little, according to Judith Rich Harris’s book “The Nurture Assumption”. You can change a child’s behavior in the classroom by changing the incentives, but do those changes persist when the child is in a different environment?

  4. Florida resident says:

    Comments on Paul Tough’s 2006 aticle in New York Times (reference not to Tough’s article, but to the comments):

    Your truly, F.r.

  5. Katie Jones says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. Experience really does play a lot in a person’s development, whether they are poor or not.