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A Review of Paul Tough’s Book on Character

By Kim Marshall, TIE Columnist

The article: “School of Hard Knocks” by Annie Murphy Paul in The New York Times Book Review, 26 August 2012 (p. 19);
In The New York Times Book Review, Annie Murphy Paul praises Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Most Americans subscribe to what Mr. Tough calls the “cognitive hypothesis”—that success is driven primarily by the kind of intelligence that is measured by I.Q. tests—brainy skills like recognizing letters and words, detecting patterns, and performing calculations. Mr. Tough believes in the “character hypothesis”—that success depends more on non-cognitive skills like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.
“Psychologists and neuroscientists have learned a lot in the past few decades about where these skills come from and how they are developed,” says Mr. Tough, and it can be summed up in one sentence: character is created by encountering and overcoming failure.
He believes that children at both ends of the economic spectrum are not getting enough of this kind of character building. Children who grow up in wealthy families are sheltered from adversity, even when they are young adults. Children who grow up in poor families have serious challenges with nutrition, medical care, their neighborhoods, and their schools, but often do not have the support to use these adversities to build character. “The book illuminates the extremes of American childhood,” says Ms. Paul: “For rich kids, a safety net drawn so tight it is a harness; for poor kids, almost nothing to break their fall.”
As we all know, some kids beat the odds. Mr. Tough profiles Kewauna Lerma, a Chicago teenager growing up in poverty on the South Side, who told him, “I always wanted to be one of those business ladies walking downtown with my briefcase, everybody saying, ‘Hi, Miss Lerma!’” Mr. Tough muses, “What was most remarkable to me about Kewauna was that she was able to marshal her prodigious non-cognitive capacity—call it grit, conscientiousness, resilience, or the ability to delay gratification—all for a distant prize that was, for her, almost entirely theoretical. She did not actually know any business ladies with briefcases downtown; she did not even know any college graduates except her teachers.”
Kewauna made it into college and is working hard, but she is the exception. Mr. Tough explains how for most poor children, a stressful environment affects the pre-frontal cortex, undermining emotional and cognitive self-regulation. This is why so many children who grow up in poverty find it harder to sit still, concentrate, and follow directions in school. “When you are overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings, it is hard to learn the alphabet,” says Mr. Tough. Attentive, responsive parents can ameliorate the situation, but too many of these children’s parents are too burdened by their own problems to do the job.
Rich children’s problems tend to show up in adolescence, most often taking the form of excessive pressure to achieve and parents who are physically and emotionally distant. “Fewer and fewer young people are getting the character-building combination of support and autonomy that Tough was fortunate enough to receive,” concludes Ms. Paul. “This is a worrisome predicament—for who will have the conscientiousness, the persistence, and the grit to change it?”
Summary reprinted from Marshall Memo 450, 3 September 2012

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