Book Review: How Children Succeed

Written by Audrey “Sunshine” Monke for Gold Arrow Camp

“We think that even if your children have the academic skills they need – and we’re doing our best to make sure they do – if our young adults grow up and they don’t also have strong character skills, then they don’t have very much.  Because we know that character is what keeps people happy and successful and fulfilled.” -Tom Brunzell, Dean of Students at KIPP Infinity (quoted in Tough’s book)

I read Paul Tough’s latest book (How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character) with great interest as both a parent and as a youth development professional.  Tough, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, shares a compelling series of narratives about research studies, a chess team, and various schools and programs that have figured out, through trial and error, how to help youth succeed.  While he focuses primarily on children coming from poverty, he also discusses the issue of character development in affluent kids.   Throughout his book, Tough threads together an indisputable fact:  our children’s character matters – a lot.

As Tough states early in the book, “What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years.  What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.  Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.”

Our challenge as parents, teachers, and others who work with youth, is providing our children with opportunities to develop the character traits that will help them find success later in life.

I highly recommend this book to parents, educators, and others who work with children and young adults.  Tough’s message about the importance of helping our youth develop character needs to permeate and change how we raise this generation of kids.  And his description of the programs and techniques that are working serves as a guide to those of us who want to help kids develop character strengths.

Character Traits Which Predict Success

“But over the past few years, it has become clear that the United States does not so much have a problem of limited and unequal college access; it has a problem of limited and unequal college completion…. [students] need qualities of motivation and perseverance – as well as the presence of good study habits and time management skills –“

-Paul Tough, How Children Succeed


According to Tough (and the many research studies he cites), certain character traits are much better predictors of success than a child’s IQ or test scores.  Among these traits, an important one is the ability to delay gratification.  As we have seen in our debt-ridden culture, many adults who do not have this skill create for themselves some major life problems and disappointments — the antithesis of success.

So how do we help kids learn to be better at delaying gratification?  There’s only one way.   They cannot get everything they want right when they want it.   They need to not get some things, face that disappointment, and have to work for a long time to earn what they want.   According to Tough, affluent parents are often guilty of “overindulging kids, with the intention of giving them everything and being loving, but at the expense of their character…”   Learning to work for something they’d like to purchase, or waiting until they achieve a particular milestone, is helpful in building up our kids’ “delayed gratification” skills.   Even if we can afford the latest technological gadget our child desires, it does them a disservice if we always run out and purchase it for them.

Tough acknowledges how hard it is for parents to not give in to our children’s desires,  “…in fact, we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small.  And yet we know – on some level, at least – that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.”

An episode on Modern Family last season featured the dilemma of Haley not having any hardship to write about on her college application.   Her mom created one by dropping her off miles from home and making her walk home.   It was a humorous example of a real problem — Colleges want to see that our kids have some “grit,” because they will need it to complete college.  But for many kids, their lives have not been conducive to developing that particular trait.  Life is often too easy for kids on the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

As a camp director I talk to a lot of parents, most of whom are very supportive and sane (since they’re willing to let their kids go to camp in the first place!).  I remember one mom, though, who couldn’t stand her daughter experiencing any discomfort at all.    She was extremely upset that the “bear bag” (food bag kept up in a tree so as to avoid having animals come into camp) got stuck up in the tree on her daughter’s backpacking trip.  The kids didn’t have any food for breakfast and had to wait until 9:00 am to eat.  She was horrified and distressed and could not understand how we could have allowed her daughter to face what seemed to her to be a terrible hardship.  I wonder how this parent might now be reacting to more serious hurdles her teenage daughter could be facing?  What impact does over-reaction have on the development of character?  I think that our well-meaning care, and sometimes over-reaction to negative events in our kids’ lives, doesn’t help them develop grit and other character traits we really want them to have.

Tough tells us about how, in recent decades, character traits have been studied and catalogued.   In their book, Character Strengths & Virtues: A Handbook for Classification, Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson include a list of 24 specific character strengths, including traits like fairness, integrity, humor, social intelligence, kindness, and gratitude.  On a list narrowed down by Peterson to be less unwieldy, we learn of seven strengths that are especially likely to predict satisfaction and high achievement.  Cultivating these character traits “represent[s] a reliable path to ‘the good life,’ a life that [is] not just happy but meaningful and fulfilling.”

The seven traits are: Grit; Self-control; Zest; Social intelligence; Gratitude; Optimism; and Curiosity.

In KIPP academies across America (charter schools with high academic standards geared towards low income kids), students are graded on these seven character traits.  A student-teacher conference could include a discussion of how to beef up self-discipline or optimism skills.  I was intrigued at the thought of making good character as much of a discussion with our kids as their grades and test scores.  I think as parents we need to be more intentional about teaching our kids about character and helping them see both their strengths and the areas they need to work on.  I don’t envision giving my boys a character report card, but I definitely want to open the lines of communication and keep this handy list of seven traits nearby!  I’ve printed out the list in a large, bold font, and we’ll use each trait as a dinner table discussion starter.  What does it look like when someone is good at delaying gratification?  How do self-disciplined people approach homework?  I can think of a whole range of questions I’m certain my children will not want to discuss, but we’ll do it any way.

According to Tough, conscientiousness (a boring-sounding trait) is the characteristic that best predicts success in all parts of life (work place, relationships, health).  He talks about words used to describe conscientious people:  hard working, orderly, reliable, respectful of social norms, and high self-control.    The most important descriptor, according to Tough?  Self-control.   Kids who are conscientious grow into adults who “do well without material incentives, have better grades in high school and college, commit fewer crimes, stay married longer, and live longer.”    Seems like a good character trait to work on developing!

Can Character be Changed?

But how do we help develop conscientiousness in a kid who is simply not described by the above-mentioned adjectives?  The secret, per Tough, is focusing on habits and teaching kids growth-mindset thinking (see Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset).  Kids need to learn that they can change themselves by changing their habits.  Not a self-disciplined person?  Make some rules for yourself to help develop new habits and turn yourself into a self-disciplined person.  When reading about the power of changed habits, I immediately thought of a good friend who over three years lost more than 100 pounds by changing her exercise and eating habits.  Is she a self-disciplined person?  She is now!   Our kids need to learn the same thing.  If they don’t have a particular character trait, they can develop it by practicing new habits.

“Habit and character are essentially the same thing.  Some kids have good habits and some kids have bad habits.  Kids understand it when you put it that way, because they know that habits might be hard to change, but they’re not impossible to change.”

-Angela Duckworth (quoted in How Children Succeed)

Doomed to Fail?

Even in the bleak landscape of extreme poverty, Tough shows us that a teenager who appears to be on a path toward failure can be helped.  He tells some inspirational stories of kids who have lifted themselves from the depths of poverty onto a path towards success.   What is needed, according to Tough, is just a single mentor who can show them that hard work and dedication can help them to achieve their goals.  Tough describes several successful programs that are doing just that – taking kids from the worst of backgrounds and helping them develop the tools and skills needed to be successful in college and the workplace.  I highly recommend anyone who works with teens (at risk, poor, affluent, or otherwise) to read Tough’s book and learn about how these programs have been successful.

I was inspired by Tough’s statement that, “..adolescence can be a time for a different kind of turning point, the profoundest sort of transformation:  the moment when a young person manages to turn herself away from near-certain failure and begins to steer a course toward success.”

Read the Book

Tough covers so much in this book, and I won’t spoil it for you by including everything I learned, but I will add that he has a lot to say about the influence of family and the importance of parental nurturing.   He also talks a lot about grit, an important character strength.   He describes the right way to set goals, which involves not being overly optimistic or pessimistic but instead using “mental contrasting” to see both the positive outcome and the obstacles that need to be overcome.   I loved Tough’s narrative about the chess team and the lessons the kids learned from their failures, from going over mistakes and getting to the bottom of why they made them.    I wanted to take up chess immediately and make my kids join the school chess team, but only if they have a coach like the one Tough describes.

Read How Children Succeed.  You won’t regret it.  And you may be inspired, like I was, to work on some of your own character traits while you’re helping your kids develop theirs.

SevenCharacterTraits (PDF for you to print out for dinner table discussions!)

How Children Succeed, Paul Tough

Character Strengths and Virtues:  A Handbook for Classification

School of Hard Knocks, New York Times Magazine Sunday Book Review, by Anne Murphy Paul


Raising Happiness

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Way Too Much of a Good Thing

Written by Audrey Monke for Gold Arrow Camp

Anyone who’s been reading my blog knows that I’m a big proponent of getting kids “unplugged.”  I love that they get two weeks of tech free time to focus on face-to-face relationships while they’re at camp.   Unfortunately, I think many of them fall back into their same tech habits, and those of their parents, when they return home.    Now I want to figure out how all of us — adults and kids — can learn how to use our technology optimally.  How can we have our technology use contribute positively to our lives and not let it continue sucking our minutes, hours, and days from the people we love?

Have you  watched what happens at the end of the school day?   Regardless of their age,  kids get released from class and immediately pull out their electronic devices.   Many immediately start texting.   As the kids pour out of my children’s elementary school, many of them pull out iPads and smart phones, fire them up, and start staring at their screens.  Others stick in their head phones, avoiding interaction with the outside world.

Where are these kids getting this alarming focus on their tech gadgets?  From us.  That’s right.  As with all the other habits we pass on to our kids, I believe we are passing along a technology addiction of epic proportions to our children.   And I think researchers have only scratched the surface of the negative impact our out-of-control technology use is having on all of us.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how my technology use has impacted my life.  In many ways, my life has improved due to new technology.  I have more flexibility to work from home and on my own schedule, since emails have replaced the many phone calls and messages from yesteryear.  I have reconnected with long-lost childhood friends through Facebook.  I can relax with a nice game of Words with Friends on the couch.   I can Facetime with my daughter at college.  I can email my mom and dad some recent photos of their grandkids.  I can create gift calendars and photo books on Shutterfly.   I can see how my friends have rated a particular book on Goodreads before I purchase it.   And I can read articles on topics that interest me.  I love all this information at my fingertips!

However, I think my technology use has a dark side, a negative impact that I’m feeling more and more lately.   I suspect others feel the same way, and research has shown that, in fact, our technology use does have a negative impact — on our sleep, on our relationships, on our mental health, and even on the education college students are getting.    I often plan to “just quickly check my emails” after I get my kids to bed, only to still be at my computer two hours later.  I read less.  I take longer to get through my “to do” list because I get easily side-tracked by something to look at or read online.    I watch TV less.  On the surface, that sounds like a good thing, but I have fond memories of laughing at Seinfeld episodes with my husband in our early married years.  Watching TV together  is now a rare occurrence.   In fact, pretty much the only TV viewing I do is while folding laundry.  We both spend a lot of our evenings trying to keep up with a relentless flood of email communication.

According to my nine and eleven year olds, “all” the kids at their school have smart phones.   I know some parents think it’s great for kids to learn to use technology at an early age, but I don’t think third graders are ready for smart phones.   If adults are having this much trouble trying to balance our tech use, how can we expect young children to figure it out?   I think we’re on the strict side in our family, but our boys are allowed 30 minutes on their computer each day (it’s set up so it logs them out).  We allow TV and iPods on the weekend only.  For now, it’s working for us.  Our older kids make their own rules and have proven to be responsible about not over-using their electronics.  They’re better at it than I am.

For myself, I’m making some new rules and am hopeful that this structure will help me get my tech-use to an optimal level:

(1)  At night, plug my phone in and charge it far from where I sleep.

(2)  Check emails no more than three times per day.

(3)  Make Sundays an email and Facebook-free day.

(4)  Check emails on my computer, not my phone, unless there’s something I’m waiting on specifically and need to get to before I’m by my computer.

(5)  No computer use between 5:00-8:30 pm unless I’m doing something related to my kids’ homework.

(6)  Turn off my computer by 10pm nightly.

My hope is that by establishing some new habits of my own that model technology-use moderation, my kids will learn good tech habits, too.

I’ve been reading a lot on this topic (as you’ll see from the list of articles below).   If you don’t have time to click on all the links, I’ve put a quote from each.    If you come across more articles or books on the topic of tech use,  please forward them to me!   I’d really love to hear your thoughts on how you’re balancing your family’s tech use (yours and your kids)!  What rules do you have for your kids?  What about for yourself?  Comment here or send me an email.

Articles on Impact of Technology Use

How your Cell Phone Hurts Your Relationships, By Helen Lee Lin, Scientific American (September 4, 2012) Amazingly, they found that simply having a phone nearby, without even checking it, can be detrimental to our attempts at interpersonal connection.

Can College Students Resist the Lure of Facebook and Twitter during Class? By Barbara J. King, NPR (August 16, 2012) As a culture, we have to fight the seductive appeal of constant connection via our technology, which fragments our attention and interrupts the joy of full immersion in thinking, problem-solving, and questioning.

The Flight from Conversation, By Sherry Turkle, NY Times (April 21, 2012) We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being “alone together.” Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be.

Death of Conversation, By Simon Jenkins, The Guardian (April 26, 2012) Psychologists have identified this as “fear of conversation”. People wear headphones as “conversational avoidance devices”. The internet connects us to the entire world, but it is a world bespoke, edited, deleted, sanitised.

Heavy Technology Use Linked to Fatigue, Stress, and Depression in Young Adults, By David Volpi, Huffington Post (8/2/2012) “I tend to think that the relationship between technology and stress, sleep disorders and depression has more to do with the overuse of technology in our society, especially among young people. If you’re a parent like I am, than you know firsthand how difficult it can be to get children to turn off the computer or put down their phone and stop texting so you can, just maybe, have a real conversation.”

Is Facebook Stunting Your Child’s Growth?  By Clifford Nass, Pacific Standard (May/June, 2012) “Tween girls who are heavy users of online social interaction feel less normal (as measured by their agreement or disagreement with statements like “I often feel rejected by people my age”) than girls who use online social media less frequently.”

How to Tell if You’re Addicted to Technology By Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience (2008) “Technology can become more than a passing problem and more like an addiction,” he told LiveScience. He listed some danger signs: “You become irritable when you can’t use it. The Internet goes down and you lose your mind. You start to hide your use.”

Why We’re all Addicted to Texts and Twitter, By Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D., Psychology Today (9/11/2012)”Do you ever feel like you are addicted to email or twitter or texting? Do you find it impossible to ignore your email if you see that there are messages in your inbox? Do you think that if you could ignore your incoming email or messages you might actually be able to get something done at work? You are right!”

Have Smartphones Killed Boredom (and is that good)? By Doug Gross, CNN (September 26, 2012)
…by filling almost every second of down time by peering at our phones we are missing out on the creative and potentially rewarding ways we’ve dealt with boredom in days past.

Your Brain on Computers, a New York Times series: Articles in this series (listed below) examine how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave.

•  Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction By Matt Richtel The constant stream of stimuli offered by new technology poses a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

•  Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime By MATT RICHTEL Time without digital input can allow people to learn better or come up with new ideas.

•  Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain By MATT RICHTEL Five scientists spent a week in the wilderness to understand how heavy use of technology changes how we think and behave.

•  The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In By JULIE SCELFO Parents’ use of smartphones and laptops — and its effect on their children — is becoming a source of concern to researchers.

•  Attached to Technology and Paying a Price By MATT RICHTEL Scientists say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information from e-mail and other interruptions.

•  An Ugly Toll of Technology: Impatience and Forgetfulness By TARA PARKER-POPE “We’re paying a price in terms of our cognitive life because of this virtual lifestyle,” one expert says.

•  More Americans Sense a Downside to an Always Plugged-In Existence By MARJORIE CONNELLY Polls show that a number of Americans, particularly younger ones, are feeling negative effects from heavy computer and smartphone use.

Categories: Family, Health, Joyful Kids, Last Child in the Woods, Parents, Raising Happiness, Self-Esteem, Social Skills, Technology | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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