Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

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

Rate this book
Why do some children succeed while others fail?

The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence: Success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs.

But in "How Children Succeed," Paul Tough argues for a very different understanding of what makes a successful child. Drawing on groundbreaking research in neuroscience, economics, and psychology, Tough shows that the qualities that matter most have less to do with IQ and more to do with character: skills like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism.

"How Children Succeed" introduces us to a new generation of scientists and educators who are radically changing our understanding of how children develop character, how they learn to think, and how they overcome adversity. It tells the personal stories of young people struggling to stay on the right side of the line between success and failure. And it argues for a new way of thinking about how best to steer an individual child – or a whole generation of children – toward a successful future.

This provocative and profoundly hopeful book will not only inspire and engage readers; it will also change our understanding of childhood itself.

231 pages, Hardcover

First published September 4, 2012

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Paul Tough

13 books398 followers
Paul Tough is the author, most recently, of The Inequality Machine. His three previous books include How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which was translated into 27 languages and spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover and paperback best-seller lists. Paul is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine; his writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and GQ, and on the op-ed page of the New York Times. He is a speaker on topics including education, parenting, equity, and student success. He has worked as an editor at the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s Magazine and as a reporter and producer for This American Life. He was the founding editor of Open Letters, an online magazine. He lives with his wife and two sons in Austin, Texas, and Montauk, New York. For more information, please visit his web site or follow him on Twitter.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
6,659 (28%)
4 stars
9,688 (40%)
3 stars
5,824 (24%)
2 stars
1,147 (4%)
1 star
374 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,366 reviews
Profile Image for Emily.
699 reviews2,025 followers
June 21, 2020
Like Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, this book serves primarily as a starting point for discussion. How do children succeed? Paul Tough and co. aren't really sure. They are also unsure of what defines success in the first place. Tough follows several subjects through the course of the book, but the main objective of the children that he discusses is always college. Occasionally he'll veer off-topic - why is it that Ivy League graduates all go into finance? - but quickly loops back to his main theme, that some character strengths are essential to "success." While it was enlightening to hear about some of the subjects' stories, I wanted to know what would happen to these bright, ambitious kids once they graduated from second-tier state universities. They've made it this far; are these children successful after receiving their BAs? Are they gainfully employed and moving up in the American class structure? How do the tools that Tough discusses in the book relate to actual adult success for the subjects that he studied?

The question is too big for Tough to answer, which is at least partially because the topic is so broad. That's fine, but writing only 200 pages that rely heavily on anecdotal evidence seems unhelpful when there are so many fascinating interconnected studies that come up throughout the course of the book. It sounds like this might be due to the fact that this research is so new; it won't be obvious what the effects are until Elizabeth Dozier's tenure at Fenger, for example, has run its course. But were there no teachers who espoused Elizabeth Spiegel's ideologies in the past? Were there zero successful character-building programs in the 80s? At times, this book felt full of research. At other times, I wasn't sure where Tough was trying to make his point.

While Tough uses the word "habit" approximately 5000 fewer times than Charles Duhigg does in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, it was great to see some of that research appear here too. He brings up "neurobiological reasons" why personal rules work, which sound like a habit-forming processes to me. Duhigg mentions in his book that willpower is something that you can improve and exercise. It's encouraging to see Tough saying the same thing: that character strengths are impressionable, and that it's possible to become more self-controlled or optimistic. Some character strengths, like Tough's favorite, "grit," are more innate, but it's good to know that these are character strengths that can be inculcated in preteens.

I guess my main problem is that "success," in the book, is defined as graduating from a four-year college, refraining from alcoholism, and staying in a two-person marriage. I understand that for wonderful organizations like OneGoal, success should be defined in the amount of students that go through the program and earn their BA - that's no small accomplishment for a student who comes from a high-stress, poverty-stricken background. I think it's fantastic that OneGoal and Jeff Nelson have achieved so much in such a short time. But I also think that Tough shies away from the concept of high school far too quickly. He brings up the Bowles/Gintis study a few times, the one that dismisses high school as a construct that makes the population into dutiful workers and stamps out their creativity. But Tough suggests the Bowles/Gintis study as a counterpoint without ever delving into it more thoroughly. It seems like the whole system is broken. Yes, success in high school - success in an environment where doing pointless tasks builds your self control - will help you in the future workplace. But, as Tough says, having too much of one of these qualities rarely produces an entrepreneur or artist. It produces moderately "successful" citizens who can continue to perform pointless tasks for their future employers. It felt like Tough at first took the clearer definition of success - graduating from a four-year university - but then meandered off into a murkier definition of "success," throws in a few studies, and then returns to the university point. The book could have been much stronger if it had tried to explore one of the two more deeply. (And those two things are two very different books!)

How Children Succeed works on some levels. It shows remarkable correlation between actual brain development and early childhood trauma. I also loved the idea of malleable intelligence - that even if the concept itself isn't true, that believing in the concept can help individuals succeed. I'm more interested in the studies and the issues that Tough brought up. But I'm not convinced that I learned anything earth-shattering. Class warfare and income inequality preclude success? Intensive programs (that wealthy taxpayers oppose) can help change these patterns? The American education system is fundamentally broken? Essentially, I'm more excited to discuss this book than I am to revisit it. But I think that's why I'd recommend it. I like where Tough's research is heading. It's just not there yet.

EDIT: NY Mag posted an interesting story about why it's harder for lower-income kids to graduate.
Profile Image for Jane.
Author 30 books80 followers
January 20, 2013
This book makes an unbalanced argument in two ways. First, it claims that if schools could just help students develop non-cognitive skills such as grit, courage, kindness, that would have more impact on eventual success than cognitive skills. In truth it's both/and. You need knowledge AND habits of mind. Paul Tough alludes to this with a couple of stories of students who have learned to focus but don't have the background knowledge to score well on tests, yet keeps coming back to grit as the solution.

Second, from my standing as an expert in psychological type, I'm concerned about how the book describes conscientiousness, one of these key non-cognitive skills that relates to the NEO-Pi, or Five-Factor personality model scale for Conscientiousness. This model measures traits, so absence of Conscientiousness is a problem. Solution presented: teach the habits of conscientiousness to those who don't have them.

The world of psychological type, popularized through the MBTI, has a very different model. Conscientiousness is highly correlated (you can check the MBTI manual) with what we call having a preference for Judging, or coming to closure. Its psychological opposite is Perceiving, or preferring to stay open to more perceptions. Both are equally valuable ways of being.

Tough spends a few sentences admitting that one can be too Conscientious (i.e. OCD) and also that people like Steve Jobs didn't necessarily exhibit this--they are more Open in the model he refers to, what we'd call Intuition, in contrast to the down-to=earth Sensing approach to life (check my website for way better information on all of this!!)

But here's the deal: Tough is pretty much prescribing Sensing/Judging ways of succeeding. And what we know in the type world is that Intuitive/Perceiving types NEED DIFFERENT STRATEGIES. What works for J's like planning ahead and starting early HAS to take a different form for P's.

Tough admits that no school has figured out how to educate all students successfully. We won't figure it out until we acknowledge that these inborn differences have different needs for, and definitions of, success.
Profile Image for Aaron Thibeault.
57 reviews61 followers
December 1, 2012
*A full executive summary of this book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2012/09/17...

When it comes to a child’s future success, the prevailing view recently has been that it depends, first and foremost, on mental skills like verbal ability, mathematical ability, and the ability to detect patterns–all of the skills, in short, that lead to a hefty IQ. However, recent evidence from a host of academic fields—from psychology, to economics, to education, to neuroscience–has revealed that there is in fact another ingredient that contributes to success even more so than a high IQ and impressive cognitive skills. This factor includes the non-cognitive qualities of perseverance, conscientiousness, optimism, curiosity and self-discipline–all of which can be included under the general category of `character’. In his new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character writer Paul Tough explores the science behind these findings, and also tracks several alternative schools, education programs and outreach projects that have tried to implement the lessons–as well as the successes and challenges that they have experienced.

To begin with, Tough establishes how studies have now shown that while IQ and scores on standardized tests are certainly highly correlated with academic and future success, that non-cognitive characteristics actually predict success better than cognitive excellence. For instance, the psychologist Angela Duckworth has found that students’ scores on self-discipline tests predict their GPA’s better than their IQ scores. Likewise, it has been shown that the related characteristic of conscientiousness is even more predictive of a student’s eventual success in college, and in their future earnings, than their scores on cognitive tests. Over and above this, it has also been found that both self-discipline and conscientiousness are highly correlated with all manner of positive outcomes, including in areas such as one’s likelihood of abusing drugs and alcohol; getting in trouble with the law; maintaining healthy social relationships—including getting and staying married etc. And the good news character traits do not end here. Indeed, similar results have been found regarding the personality traits of perseverance (or grit), curiosity and optimism et al.

Unfortunately, it has not been as clear just how we can cultivate these character traits in young people. Nevertheless, several promising avenues have been identified. To begin with, it has been shown that exposure to highly stressful and traumatic events in childhood can severely hamper the growth of character. However, it has also been shown that strong parental nurturance and attentiveness in response to these traumatic events can overcome the effect of the experiences themselves. In addition, the evidence is that the attentive and nurturing approach is effective even in the absence of traumatic events, as it is highly correlated with strong character development throughout the lifespan.

While nurturance is certainly the most important factor early on, Tough argues that the cultivation of character during later childhood and adolescence requires somewhat of a different approach. Indeed, while the field is quite a bit more speculative here, it would appear that what is needed at this stage is for a young person to have the opportunity to take risks (some of which will no doubt result in failure), and to learn how to manage their failures in a constructive way. Success has been achieved using this approach in such programs as Elizabeth Spiegel’s chess program at Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn (while it remains a challenge at schools that cater to the wealthy, such as the Riverdale Country School in New York—on account of the fact that wealthy parents are increasingly shielding their children from failure).

Beyond this, we find that results have also been achieved among some young people simply by steeping them in a culture of character, and by informing them of how certain character traits can lead them to greater success, and allowing their own ambition to take over from there. Indeed, this type of approach is practiced both at the KIPP family of schools, and in the OneGoal education program in Chicago. While the approach itself may not be a silver bullet, early indications are that it can indeed have a very positive effect.

Tough's writing style is very readable, honest and unpretentious, and he does an excellent job of supporting the scientific evidence that he introduces with interesting and powerful anecdotes (indeed, many of these are enough to bring you to tears). This is a strong argument in favor of paying closer to attention to cultivating character in young people, both in our personal lives and in our public policy. A full executive summary of this book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2012/09/17...
A podcast discussion of the book is also available.
Profile Image for Teresa.
530 reviews
January 23, 2013
As a teacher I have often wanted to put a sign in my classroom, "Many a student has failed because you can't send mom and dad to the principal's office." We cannot fix what's wrong with U.S. educational system until we fix what's wrong with families, or the lack of family. Tough finally addresses in the last chapter the elephant in the room, which educators and politicans acknowledge behind close doors that the family a child is born into will predict how well a child will succeed in school and life. Tough's book affirms what every study has shown that intelligence alone is not a predictor in academic or life success, but character. Character is formed in the first 3-5 years of life - before a child enters school. It's the teaching and example of parents which will help children be successful, and so many of this generation and the generation to come do not have parents that are giving them tools they need because they are absentee parents in so many ways. Like Tough I believe character can be changed and improved, if I didn't believe that I would just give up on the human race.
Profile Image for Matthew.
71 reviews2 followers
February 24, 2013
There's a certain kind of book that journalists like to write that I used to like, because I found it very convincing. It's the kind of book that reads something like this: "We all used to think that XXX. But then Professor AAA of the University of BBB did a study and it turns out that it's YYY."

I used to like this because when you're young, you think the world is screwed up, and it's refreshing to find somebody that purports to demonstrate that your instincts are right and up is actually down and black is actually white, and then you want to turn the world upside down so this huge problem that everybody has been trying to solve the wrong way can now be fixed.

This book is kind of like that. It says we've been trying to teach poor kids to read and write, and professors AAA and BBB and CCC say what they really need is "grit." Or "character." Or "resilience."

It's a very appealing argument: if you have grit, you'll succeed in life regardless of what falls down around you. The problem is, none of the professors have much evidence that it can be taught. They have a lot of evidence that it comes from your family. So if you're a parent, this book will reassure you, as it should. If you love your child and show him that you love him, support him when he needs it and let him fail but stick out a safety net, he'll do fine.

If you're an educator, though, the book is likely to be frustrating. It seems to be saying that although you signed up to be a math teacher in the worst neighborhood around, your job is useless if those kids' families don't do what the rich families do. In fact, it's even more frustrating, because it implies that the rich kids aren't getting ahead because of what they HAVE; they're getting ahead because rich families love and support their kids better and protect them better from traumatic experiences that will kill their chances at success.

But of course, that IS what good teachers do in the worst neighborhoods, and the best. They care about their students' lives, in the classroom and out. They get them and their families help when they can, and even when they can't, they show them the joy that comes from learning math or Spanish or biology or history. Not one study mentioned in this book focused on what teachers can do for their students instead of what they can't.

It's also going to frustrate public school teachers because it, like so many books on education these days, has a hard-on for charter schools, and particularly the miraculous KIPP schools. The KIPP schools do teach values: some might say they successfully teach their students to be the automatons that the capitalist world so desperately desires from its proletariat. You might say, better those students learn to be robots and get a college degree if the alternative is rotting in jail, and I'd agree. But I wonder if we can't also agree that there's got to be a third way, and this book doesn't really provide it.
29 reviews2 followers
October 18, 2012
As a teacher, I really appreciated a lot of the issues brought to light by this book. When he quotes the principal at an extremely difficult school saying that its the first time she has considered that the student's environment outside of school has a major effect on performance in school, it seems unbelievable. However, this shows you how much brainwashing occurs throughout education where the people running schools and teaching in them are told that none of that matters and all that matters is that the student has good teachers. This book paints a broader picture of what it really takes for children to succeed.
Profile Image for Nancy.
1,368 reviews69 followers
November 1, 2012
This was the book du jour in education circles a couple of months ago--everyone reading it, nitpicking Tough's conclusions and assumptions. I didn't expect to like it, particularly--in fact, I stopped reading after the chess section--but finally finished it. The end of the book is the best part, where Tough pulls together the disparate threads of the research he's studied, on character and why it matters so much, and admits--oh yeah, we're totally headed in the wrong direction, policy-wise.

There's a lot to like in the book--plenty of evidence that what used to be called, wrongly, self-esteem still matters a great deal in educational and life success, especially with students whose early lives are filled crises, terrors and uncertainties. The core belief that hard work and persistence will make things better isn't a new idea, but the assembled stories and studies re-affirm that while poverty may not be destiny, it certainly points kids in a particular direction. Tough inserts himself into enough situations to make the book feel like story-telling, and the writing is lively and engaging.

Where I got off the train was the assumption, which lies under all sections of the book, that young, entrepreneurial "reformers" are the answer to addressing the flood of children in our schools whose life prospects have been seriously eroded by poverty-related traumas. There is almost no mention of traditional public schools, which educate a huge majority of kids, often very well. Another unexamined and unsettling aspect, going all the way back to WEB Dubois and "The Souls of Black Folk"--what happens to kids who "escape" their roots, go to college and become what middle-class society sees as successful--do their families get left behind?

One book can only look at so many things, and it's not fair to expect an author to write the book you want. "How Children Succeed" is well worth the read, for a clear definition of the problem, if not the answers.
Profile Image for Andy.
1,377 reviews467 followers
March 26, 2016
This guy hangs out at some inner-city schools and tells us touching stories about programs that "seem" [his word] to help rescue the underprivileged, undereducated kids who are already failing. We don't need "seem to work." From a book with a title like "How Children Succeed" we should learn about what is proven effective.

He doesn't talk at all about the experience of the schools in Raleigh, North Carolina, which as far as I know is the one example of an entire metropolitan area with children succeeding in school: see hope and despair in the american city. He does mention Perry preschool briefly; I would have liked much more about that and other programs that actually work.

Instead, the author devotes much of the book to trendy brain science psycho-babble including rat studies (!!!! rat studies for crying out loud!!!) and he tries to extrapolate all that to policy implications. He tells us about KIPP, but points out that KIPP so far has failed in the long-term. There's a huge section on chess clubs but the practical point of that is sort of a mystery. He holds out hope for the Gates Foundation efforts, but leaves out that their educational interventions to date have been massive failures. Etc., etc. etc.

There is some accurate information in here that may be of interest to some readers, but how much of a revelation is it, for example, that having a horrible childhood is bad for you?

Too much of the potentially useful information is presented in a confusing fashion. As the title indicates, a major theme is "character." Eventually, it turns out that what he means by that is learned skills and behaviors, what I think educational psychologists actually call "comportment." He also points out how it's possible to change those behaviors at an individual level using tools from CBT (cognitive behavior therapy). Calling it "character" is confusing because what that word denotes normally is something that is in one's nature like personality. He also refers to these skills frequently as "non-cognitive" even though they are obviously cognitive. I think what he means by "non-cognitive" is non-academic.

I was very disappointed by this book. It's nice to have Hollywood stories about poor kids, and theories about what is wrong, but I expected something solid about what works.

Profile Image for Eric Lin.
130 reviews64 followers
December 6, 2014
Pretty interesting pseudo-science. It could have been one extremely long chapter of a Malcolm Gladwell book (maybe if the title had been one word). The main premise of the book is that intelligence isn't nearly as effective a predictor of success (usually determined by completion of a college degree) as a measurement of a child's character.

Paul Tough clearly believes the thesis of his book, but the success stories in his case studies always seem to come up short of true success. Students get into college, but don't finish; a student is a chess wizard, but can't do well academically, etc. He sometimes answers this question with more questions: why couldn't James succeed in school, although he was so successful at chess? Why didn't the good grades students obtained from the KIPP program translate into college success? Sometimes these are answered, but generally, they are not, mostly because nobody really knows.

It's a pretty interesting theory, but there isn't a ton of evidence that the reactive measures we're putting in place have a lasting impact. That's the thing about studying people - there are so many potential cases to study, and so many ways of spinning the same resulting person, that you can ascribe several factors to that person's success. At the end of the book, you feel that character probably matters; most likely matters; but you come short of being able to describe exactly how. Still, it's a book clearly written for mass consumption, so maybe I was expecting too much.

Three stars, since it made me think that there might be something to what he's saying. Two stars short of five because it promised so much, but delivered ~60% of it.
Profile Image for Nicolas A..
11 reviews4 followers
May 15, 2013
Some books amaze you with breath-taking aesthetic appeal, others with innovative and unexpected narrative elements, and then there are books that are amazing because the story they tell changes the way you see and understand the world.

What this book presents is an alternative to the cognitive hypothesis. This is a long-standing theory which posits that success (defined in this book as a happy, meaningful, and fulfilling life) is determined by one's cognitive abilities. What Tough's book suggests, through the examination of a wide-range of research studies and various personal interviews, is that incorporating the teaching of noncognitive skills (also referred to as "character") like grit, curiosity, self-control, follow-through, etc. (one research team came up with a list of 24) is not only a better way to graduate successful students, but that it is also a way to close and understand the persistent achievement gap. The book details its argument through a variety of discussions, such as the effects of stress on executive function, the importance of secure attachment, the hidden cost of affluence, and many others.

Tough's style was easy to read, his explanations and analyses of complex studies were accessible, his positive outlook was refreshing, and his questions were important, answered, and extremely relevant to the current conversations taking place about education. (What he included in his book yesterday, you will be hearing in teacher's lounges, policy meetings, and public discourse tomorrow.)

The only difficult thing for me about reading this book was that I constantly found myself reflecting my own childhood experiences, both at home and at school, looking for ways to interpret and understand my own struggles to succeed.

I would recommend this book to everyone and anyone, especially teachers (tenured and pre-service), parents, young adults, politicians, and education policy-makers. I believe that what is in this book has the potential to have a profoundly positive impact not only on this generation of students, but many generations, all that it will take is for more people to become aware of it.

The time for this book has come; the time for us to take its message to heart is now.
Profile Image for Maurine Tritch.
251 reviews1 follower
October 15, 2012
I requested this book expecting dialog about what drives some children to go out into the world and try without fear to achieve their goals, and some to drop out of college--if they make it that far--and drift...and/or take up permanent residence in their parents' basement. My instinct is that the accepted practices of conscientious parenting today is not the best way to turn out ambitious, autonomous adults, but what do I know? So I was hoping the book would help answer that supposition with fact and research, and maybe suggest ways to foster such desirable traits in our kids.

Instead, the book focused on low income students and how their scores were being raised. There was a discussion of character, and how high character scores are more indicative of future success than any other test. I loved the story of the IQ test, how inner-city kids raised their IQ scores by 15-20 points after being given an M&M for each correct answer. And the IQ test measures intelligence which is supposed to be an absolute quantity, and more or less inflexible. Hmmm. But this is not revolutionary information either. It's been said and done before. The book also wandered from point to point shying away from conclusions. The chess chapter in the middle was the most perplexing (and the most interesting to read). The high stakes chess lifestyle was described in loving detail, one inner city school even has a "chess teacher" who is a full-time paid staff member. Yet when she tries to tutor one exceptional prodigy to pass a rigorous elite high school exam, she has to admit defeat because the boy is too far behind. Apparently being a chess genius didn't relate to the rest of his academics. I found myself wondering what the point was, then. And why chess, when surely there disciplines that cross over better. Music came instantly to mind.

In the closing remarks it was finally made clear that no, I didn't pick the book up by mistake; the author was grappling with the same subject as I was. He just failed to do it justice. Tough had connections to educators in impoverished urban settings through other pieces and books he'd written, so he forced a research that didn't really address the subject. This is too broad to only look below the poverty line. The lip service he gave to the elite high school was so far outweighed by the other end of the spectrum it might not even been there. Basically he sat in classrooms, followed students; he told us stories and amusing anecdotes...and none of it added up to anything truly new.
Profile Image for Lisa.
755 reviews50 followers
June 15, 2013
The fact that I found myself tearing up while reading about a young student getting reprimanded for chewing gum can be attributed to the excellent writing in this book. When I read nonfiction I usually like to take it in small doses while I simultaneously read a well spun story. This was not the case with this interesting and inspiring work. I could not put it down.

I feel passionate about education and this book sure had me thinking about the way we are teaching our kids from every socioeconomic background. In one section of the book a group of educators came up with a list of a set of strengths that were, "especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement," they are:

self-control (remember the marshmallow test?)
social intelligence

A school in Chicago went so far as to give students a GPA as well as a character report. There is so much good stuff in this book, I think I might have to buy it!
Profile Image for Rick.
17 reviews1 follower
November 20, 2012
I was planning to rate this book 4 1/2 or 5 stars until reading the last chapter. The meat of the book is great in that it identifies some great markers of success for children. I was anxious to try some ideas spawned from the book, such as attempting to limit my child's exposure to negative stressors, and encouraging them to learn how to deal with failures. Then, suddenly, after only 2 previous quick jabs at conservative thinking, the author vomits throughout the last chapter this contradictory notion that the solution involved throwing more Federal money (ie, tax dollars) at the problem. What!? He spent so much of the book saying the problem begins at home, then attempts to solve it by expanding Federal government. It made me feel sick to my stomach that our political environment has gotten so bad that it basically doesn't matter what the facts are these days, some people will, like lemmings, stick to their party ideologies moreso than their own observations of reality. Trash the last chapter and I give it 4 1/2 stars.
Profile Image for Chris Fazio.
30 reviews
June 10, 2013
Be honest for a minute. How much do you actually remember from high school? What skills are still intact that help you on a daily basis? Chances are, the biggest lessons you took away are how to organize your time, manage stress, and overcome adversity. In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that these "non-cognitive" skills are far and away the most important in determining whether someone will make it in college and beyond.

The beauty of Tough's prose is that while it's couched in neuroscience and clinical studies, its themes resonate with the personal stories of the young folk he describes. He provides a scientific explanation for the behaviors we as educators see in our most troubled students every day. In brief, stressful situations (losing parents, living in poverty, living in a violent neighborhood) activate our "hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis," a hormonal system we've evolved to respond to grave threats like being chased by hyenas. This is quite useful for infrequent life-or-death situations, but we weren't built to consistently bear the strain of this five-alarm response. The more trauma young people suffer, the less equipped they are to deal with the problems that adolescence brings, and the less likely they are to persevere through college.

Tough peppers the book with inspiring stories about students who did indeed overcome those odds, however, showing that character (for lack of a better word) is not a fixed quantity. One of the most rewarding and compelling stories is that of the quirky-intense-obsessive chess coach of Brooklyn's I.S. 318. The school consistently transforms low-performing students into chess prodigies, dominating tournaments populated by kids from specialized high schools. Their success can be attributed to how the team reshapes their response to difficult situations. They relearn how to deal with stress, how to work hard, and how to control their impulses.

The difficulty in changing these habits comes from the breaking the cycle of failure that occurs in high-poverty areas for a number of reasons. Tough handles the socio-economic angle gracefully and without condescension. Occasionally Tough loses the narrative thread in favor of exploring the idiosyncrasies of schools that are trying to change the way students think about their education, but it's always an entertaining ride.

According to the research, the most important traits that lead to long-term success are grit, curiosity, self-control, social intelligence, zest, optimism, and gratitude. Do schools have it backward? Should we develop a system to assess character before worrying about cognitive skills? Realistically, I know that over the course of a good education, students should eventually develop each of these on their own. I can't help but worry, however, that the isolation and drilling of skills for standardized tests draws attention away from the enrichment of the whole child.

This book has inspired me to change the way I teach, knowing that the damage poverty does is not irreparable, and that at least part of the solution lies in my control. Where do I begin?
Profile Image for Diz.
1,564 reviews88 followers
November 26, 2020
This book lacks focus. It starts out by promoting a growth mindset to education, an approach that focuses on developing characteristics such as grit and resilience. Then the author introduces several special programs. These programs range from interventions in inner city schools to posh private academies. As an educator, this raised a yellow flag. Special programs is where trendy ideas go to shine for a brief moment and then die when people lose interest in those ideas. For the growth mindset to take root, it needs to be implemented in the regular curriculum. Otherwise, it just becomes something for program directors to put on their resume.

The last 1/4 of the book takes a sharp left turn as the author begins to talk about why he was interested in writing about growth mindset. It turns out that he had regrets about his education and felt that he wasn't able develop the character traits that a growth mindset would instill. Despite that, he was still able to become a writer for the New York Times and then write a few successful books. Then he points out that educational interventions are of limited use if students are dealing with poverty. This is a conclusion that I agree with. You can't focus on finishing homework if you don't have food or if your home environment is abusive. However, it made me feel like I wasted my time reading about all of those educational programs in the first 3/4 of the book. Why didn't the author state his thesis clearly at the beginning?
Profile Image for Louise.
947 reviews291 followers
June 15, 2013
(2.5 stars)

This book cited lots of studies and anecdotal examples of exceptional kids who conquered adversity to take the step toward success in life, which is great and all, but I thought there was a lot of hand-waving going on. Nothing really revolutionary was introduced and most of it was a rehash of things I've read from various articles over the year.

I guess it's just a no-brainer to me that to succeed in life, you don't have to just be smart and have an IQ, but you have to have some points in certain character skills. I should be glad to my parents for teaching me that early on in life.

The title of the book also didn't match with the content of the book. Maybe it was a choice of the publisher or editor's, but it seemed to cash in on the Tiger Mom trend. I'd prefer a title like, "How People Succeed" but maybe that would make it sound too business-douchey.

I also hate it when non-fiction authors interject themselves into their story. It was even worse when it was revealed on page 3 that the author's son's name was Ellington. Maybe it's for the sequel: How Children Succeed: Give Them Pretentious Names They'll Never Live Up To.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,464 reviews8,574 followers
May 10, 2013
As someone possibly striving to become a teacher, I appreciated How Children Succeed. Paul Tough variegates his writing style enough to keep the book entertaining without losing track of the message he puts forth - one way he does this is by including various anecdotes. He does not just share stories about kids who have suffered in the current education system, but he reveals parts of his own journey, such as when he dropped out of Columbia University.

Tough connects these tales to psychology too, by examining several pertinent ideas like character, conscientiousness, and what it truly takes to succeed in an academic environment. It's not enough to tell kids "okay, be a good little malleable mushroom" - other ideas must be implemented to develop children's attitudes and personalities. He incorporates how external motivation affects intelligence, which impressed me as a Psychology nerd. One experiment I found shocking was when kids who each took a test scored differently (these aren't the exact ranges, but let's pretend they were "good", "okay", and "bad".) When these same children who scored in the "bad" range were given M&Ms, an external motivator, they scored almost as well as the "okay" kids did. This has large implications as to how extrinsic motivation can be used in education both for good and bad, and it speaks to the shaky nature of what we perceive as intelligence.

My favorite aspect of How Children Succeed was Tough's evaluation of privilege, failure, and how many factors can affect a child's success. He touched upon a trend I've noticed: many children and teens who are raised in wealthy households and go on to attend privileged private schools and Ivy League institutions never develop a mechanism for coping with failure, and some of them do not attain any actual fulfillment in terms of transcending monetary gain. While this obviously is not representative of every member of that demographic, it does provide food for thought - how do we get these kids to learn for the love of learning? How do we allow them to experience and overcome failure when their parents are paying out of pocket for them to get A's? Tough discusses all of these ideas and I found myself nodding along and sighing in the "finally, someone who understands" kind of way while reading his book.

Overall, I would highly recommend How Children Succeed to anyone interested in education, psychology, and children. One of the best works of nonfiction I've read!

*review cross-posted on my blog, the quiet voice.
Profile Image for Edward.
28 reviews1 follower
October 8, 2012
As an undergraduate student, I was assigned Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America for a class and it was one of the books that affirmed my decision to pursue education as a career. Tough's second book reaffirmed my belief in the value and potential of public education.

Expanding on a New York Times Magazine article, Paul Tough explores character education and various schools (no pun intended) of thought about education and society. From decades of research across various disciplines, Tough weaves together a number of theories and hypotheses about what factors make children succeed. It's a highly accessible work of contemporary non-fiction that is meticulously detailed in its sources but also filled with anecdotes and stories of researchers, teachers and children, evoking sadness, anger and at times, inspiration. Given the serious anxiety over the future of the middle class and the disparity between the wealthiest and neediest, Tough's themes are relevant and of major importance to anyone concerned about American prosperity, not just educators, parents or students.
Profile Image for Ensiform.
1,337 reviews140 followers
March 23, 2016
Investigating successful kids and programs at low-income schools and high-achieving prep schools, as well as interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists, Tough challenges some conventional wisdom on causes of failure (poverty, teacher quality) and contends that nurturing character in children and young adults is the key to success. He argues that the gap between poorer and wealthier kids’ success levels is caused not mostly through lack of cognitive stimulation, but through a chaotic environment where mothering attachment is lacking and childhood traumas are plentiful. Evidence for this abounds: there is a drop-off in performance among elite prep school kids who have had no lessons in determination and failure management; the ACE score, a measurement of childhood trauma, is a reliable indicator of future performance; and a student’s GPA is a better indicator of college completion than standardized tests, regardless of the quality of the school (which makes sense: a kid in a chaotic environment with a high GPA obviously had high determination, while a kid in the richest prep school with tutoring and enrichment opportunities abounding, with an average GPA, is clearly not working as hard as he could be). The good news is that according to some of his interview subjects, mothering skills can be taught and non-cognitive skills such as curiosity and grit are malleable traits and can be developed fairly late in life.

I found this book to be inspiring and important. Written in an easy, engaging style, with great ideas and surprising revelations bursting forth from nearly every page. The broad studies and character interviews are extremely valuable, while a surprisingly long discursus on chess isn’t so much – and why Tough gives any page time to the “bell curve” idea, which is basically giving a little air time to Hitler, is beyond me. Of course, in a way it’s a depressing book, because it makes clear how totally the system has failed low-income kids, giving the most needy the least instruction – though Tough notes that some programs, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, are trying to make a difference. In the end, Tough diplomatically addresses what few dare to, though I have advocated for years: we don’t need teacher reform or school reform quite as much as we need family reform. It’s a delicate thing for a well-off white person to criticize the parenting skills of poorer minority parents, but the fact is that with a few simple lessons to new parents after a child’s birth, many costly problems would be avoided before they began. They do it in Germany – it’s too bad so many policymakers in America are so short-sighted when it comes to helping others.
Profile Image for Kristin.
223 reviews
November 10, 2013
After loving Paul Tough’s first book, Whatever It Takes, I was very excited to learn that he had written a new book. In How Children Succeed, Tough argues that what matters most for kids is not intelligence but character. He masterfully weaves concise explanations of complex academic research with engaging stories of inspiring young people in many different situations and the adults who support them. He explains how early adversity causes stress which damages young children’s developing brains, but supportive relationships with parents buffer this stress and it is possible for kids to improve their executive functions as teenagers. After observing character building programs in KIPP charter schools, a wealthy private school, a championship chess team, and a college prep program, he believes that helping low-income students develop traits such as grit, self-control, and optimism can help them succeed without the safety net that higher-income kids are born with.

I had very minor issues with this book. I thought Tough spent too many pages on chess and I was annoyed that he extensively profiled a small college prep program that works with students in two cities but never mentioned AVID or the Department of Education’s TRIO programs like the one I work for that help with thousands of students across the country. But overall I love Tough’s moral outrage at our current ineffective patchwork of programs to support kids facing adversity and his dreams of continuous interventions on a large scale to help all kids be successful. Tough is a gifted writer who can explain complex issues in ways people without scientific or policy backgrounds can understand while keeping readers engaged by telling the stories of individual youth and programs. I hope many people read this book and think about the questions he raises.
Profile Image for Yudron.
Author 3 books11 followers
December 20, 2012
I really liked learning about the research presented in this book, but I can't say I enjoyed reading the book itself. It presents a journalist's approach to researching the question; what makes some kids "succeed" and others "fail." I put these things in quotes because I question the definition of success presented here. Success is defined as college completion, long lasting marriages, income level and so forth. The author never questions whether these outcomes increased a person's happiness, creativity, or spiritual well-being.

There are a lot of interesting points in the book, but I didn't care for the writing style, which focused too much on the lives and personalities of multiple researchers and not enough on the lives of actual children. There are some excruciatingly boring parts about researchers and educators that just seemed like filling up pages to try to get the book to some marketable length.

I read it as a Nook book, and I find skimming boring parts difficult in that format. Unless you are a teacher or child psychologist, I might recommend reading a summary of the book's main points somewhere, or listening to a good interview with the writer, rather than slogging through the book itself.
45 reviews
March 5, 2013
Excellent book that discusses the power of character/grit over IQ in the long-term success of a child. It discusses how educators focus on the results of standardized tests alone and makes the point that IQ is not the only thing that determines the potential of a child. There are a lot of smart, privileged kids, but it's the kids with grit and determination who often have the most success according to the many studies. It discusses how IQ is innate, but character malleable, therefore, we as parents can help to foster character in our children. How? The book doesn't so much delve into that and I had more questions about how, but one thing it discusses is the helicopter-parented child who never has to figure anything out for himself, gets to college and after college and doesn't really know how to make things happen because he's never been given the opportunity/challenge or had certain character traits instilled. The more impoverished child, when given a chance to learn often succeeds by these character traits surpassing those with the higher IQ. Very worthwhile read and recommended to parents and educators.
Profile Image for Malbadeen.
613 reviews7 followers
December 12, 2012
Hate the title (and think it's odd that he used it, considering how frequently he pointed out in the book that the word "character" is misinterpreted and used by conservatives to mean morals).

But I thought the book was really interesting and am leaning hard on everyone in my school distirct to read it. My personal motive in doing so, is to broaden our academic conversations beyond cognitive skills kids can/should aquire and talk about the non-cognitive skills they need and what is impeeding them.

I thought the last chapter could be a stand alone essay. It addressed how our society has moved from talking about poverty in one camp and education in another to talking about poverty/education as one.
Profile Image for Gail.
326 reviews87 followers
December 11, 2012
After devouring “Brain Rules for Baby” like a hot-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookie, I spied the title “How Children Succeed” and scarfed up Paul Tough’s latest journalistic endeavor; it was like expecting a chips ahoy and sinking my teeth into a kettle chip.

You see, “How Children Succeed” is not a parenting book. Tough offers only a few pieces of broad strokes guidance. He states: “[S]cientists 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.” Tough also cautions us parents to balance “our urge to provide everything for our child, to protect him from all harm” against “our knowledge that if we really want him to succeed, we need to first let him fail.” That’s it, folks. Parents searching for new ideas or practical tips will be disappointed.

But those who remember a time when they cared about other people’s children will eat up what is essentially Tough’s second book-length New Yorker article examining the intersection of education and poverty (the first, “Whatever It Takes,” is arguably an even more interesting read). The bulk of the book tells the scientific and historical story of “character education” in U.S. schools. To summarize in a patchwork of Tough’s words, character strengths like grit and curiosity “matter . . . to young people’s success,” “are not innate” or genetic but rather “are rooted in brain chemistry [and] . . . molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up,” and even after the most formative years “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.” And Tough tells fascinating tales about a handful of educators and community service providers trying to ensure that process happens.

Tough skillfully splices their stories together and distills complicated concepts into easily digestible explanations (e.g., “mental contrasting . . . means concentrating on a positive outcome and simultaneously concentrating on the obstacles in the way”), classifications (e.g., “Rules . . . are not the same as willpower. They are a metacognitive substitute for willpower.”), and analogies (his Napoleon/marshmallow extended metaphor was intellectually delectable), all the while serving up engaging prose (e.g., “He is a classic academic intellectual, his glasses thick, his IQ stratospheric, his shirt pocket bristling with mechanical pencils.”).
Profile Image for Ben.
49 reviews1 follower
March 14, 2013
The subtitle of the book is a bit misleading. (I should even say the title was misleading as it deals more with adolescents than with children.) I had (foolishly) hoped for a book that more clearly catalogued true traits the girder success and how they can be instilled in children. While it does spend much of its time looking at the "character" traits that help children succeed, it is broader focused than just character development, with many portions dwelling on evaluation of a variety of education focuses and reforms, both past and present, and many detailed ancillary stories. And, more importantly, Tough comes as the bearer of the truth that even if there is some distinguishable set of traits that brings success, there is no certainty on how these traits can be endowed or taught fully, or even partially. The book also focuses heavily on the education issues for those teaching disadvantaged students. In this way, it is more a book about policy and education engineering than one for parents looking for cues in raising their already advantaged kids. To be fair though, there were some small portions probing the problems that over-advantaged students can face, such as lack of experience dealing with adversity and a failure-avoidance mentality.

While the book is well written and an easy page turner, I did grow a bit weary of it as I made my way through it. In the end though Tough redeemed the book with a final chapter that did a real good job of tying all the loose chapters and anecdotes together. This was a refreshing relief from the typical obligatory final chapter that simply summarizes what has already be said. It's this chapter that most truly reveals the books as a treatise on the state of the intertwined war against poverty and disadvantages in education in America. I don't know that Tough has answered any questions whatsoever with this book, but he has taken a great snapshot of what we know and where we are (hopefully) headed on the path to meaningful educational reform.
Profile Image for Hilary.
441 reviews3 followers
October 1, 2012
Author, Paul Tough, examines through interviews, several studies, and classroom observations, what exactly it takes for children to succeed, not only in school, but in college and beyond into adulthood. What it comes down to is not high IQ or an exceptional education (although neither hurts), but more importantly, strength of character, a supportive family background, and the chance to have failures that can be overcome.
Interesting premise, and one I can get behind, although I had the distinct feeling the whole time I was reading this that twenty years from now strength of character will be passé. I could just see 55 year old self talking to a 30 year old that's just had a child and them going that's so 2012! Engaging read, full of interesting factoids from studies you've never heard of (unless, maybe, you're in the education field), and a positive outlook on the direction of the young folk growing up today.
544 reviews16 followers
December 11, 2012
Tough tells us what most of us have known and/or suspected for a long time -- brains and grades are not the only thing. Success comes from determination, desire, curiosity, and patience. And for the most part this is taught at home. Thus, its not only poverty which places children behind the starting line but also the character deficits often linked to poverty.

Tough outlines numerous, programs and ideas to help alleviate those children who fell behind and at times the reader gets lost in the anecdotes and acronyms. The information itself is not new -- the marshmallow test is fairly well known. Tough does little more than recount common knowledge and its application in numerous education reforms while neglecting the traditional public schools that continue to succeed.
Profile Image for Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance.
5,827 reviews286 followers
January 1, 2013
Why are we always so quick to reject the wisdom of older people as outdated? Don't we always come back around and take another look and find they were right after all?

Paul Tough takes a look at new research on children who grow up to find success in their adult lives and shares with us the New Version of an Old Truth: hard work means a lot.

My grandfather is quietly nodding his head.
Profile Image for Chinook.
2,260 reviews19 followers
March 23, 2017
That was a good overview of some of the issues facing educators and child poverty workers. In particular, I appreciated that the book gave me a considerable list of further books to check out. The stories of the schools and students were really moving.

And apparently it's time to learn some chess so I can teach it to the girls.
Profile Image for Emily.
933 reviews104 followers
July 9, 2017
"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. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school. When you're overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses ad distracted by negative feelings, it's hard to learn the alphabet. And in fact, when kindergarten teachers are surveyed about their students, they say that the biggest problem they face is not children who don't know their letters and numbers; it is kids who don't know how to manage their tempers or calm themselves down after a provocation. In one national survey, 46 percent of kindergarten teachers said that at least half the kids in their class had problems following directions. In another study, Head Start teachers reported that more than a quarter of their students exhibited serious self-control-related negative behaviors, such as kicking or threatening other students, at least once a week." (17)


"It turns out that there is a particularly effective antidote to the ill effects of early stress, and it comes not from pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood educators but from parents. 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)


"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. A child who is physically abused is going to fare far worse, we assume, than a child who is simply ignored or discouraged. And the child of a supermom who gets lots of extra tutoring and one-on-one support is going to do way better than an average well-loved child. But what Blair's and Evans's 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)


"Researchers, including Michael Meaney and Clancy Blair, have demonstrated that for infants to develop qualities like perseverance and focus, they need a high level of warmth and nurturance from their caregivers. What Spiegel's success suggests, though, is that when children reach early adolescence, what motivates them most effectively isn't licking and grooming-style care but a very different kind of attention. 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)


"In a 2006 paper, Roderick identified as a critical component of college success 'noncognitive academic skills,' including 'study skills, work habits, time management, help-seeking behavior, and social/academic problem-solving skills.' Roderick, who borrowed the term noncognitive from James Heckman's work, wrote that these skills were at the center of an increasingly dire mismatch between American high schools and American colleges and universities. When the current high-school system was developed, she wrote, the primary goal was to train students no for college but for the workplace, where at the time ;critical thinking and problem-solving abilities were not highly valued.' ... And so the traditional American high school was never intended to be a place where students would learn how to think deeply or develop internal motivation or persevere when faced with difficulty - all the skills needed to persist in college. Instead, it was a place where, for the most part, students were rewarded for just showing up and staying awake.

"For a while, Rocerick wrote, this formula worked well...But them the world changed, and the American high school didn't..." (161)


"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)


"Liberals and conservatives differ sharply on what the government should do to aid families in poverty, but just about everyone agrees that it should do something. Helping to alleviate the impact of poverty and providing young people with opportunities to escape it: that has historically been one of the essential functions of any national government, right up there with building bridges and defending borders. Poll numbers from an ongoing survey of attitudes by the Pew Research Center show that most Americans concur. Although public support for aid to the poor has weakened somewhat since 2008, as it often does during economic hard times, a clear majority of Americans still agree with the statements 'The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep' and 'It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves.' And when the issue is framed in terms of opportunity, the public consensus is much more clear and unwavering: since 1987, when Pew started asking these questions, between 87 percent and 94 percent of respondents in every poll have agreed with the statement 'Our society should do what is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.'

"But while Americans remain as committed as ever to helping their less fortunate neighbors succeed, something important has changed in the past few decades: what was once a noisy and impassioned national conversation about how best to combat poverty has faced almost to silence..."

"Education and poverty used to be two very separate topics in public policy...But increasingly, there's just one conversation, and it's about the achievement gap between rich and poor - the very real fact that overall, children who grow up in poor families in the United States are doing very badly in school." (185-7)


"...science suggests...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. We now know a great deal about what kind of interventions will help children develop those strengths and skills, starting at birth and going all the way through college. Parents are an excellent vehicle for those interventions, but they are not the only vehicle. Transformative help also comes regularly from social workers, teachers, clergy members, pediatricians, and neighbors. We can argue about whether those interventions should be provided by the government or nonprofit organizations or religious institutions or a combination of the three. But what we can't argue anymore is that there's nothing we can do." (196)

Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,366 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.