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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Jeanie: Gold Arrow Living Legend

By Audrey “Sunshine” Monke

At 99 years of age, Jeanie Vezie no longer has the physical energy and spring in her step that the campers and staff of Gold Arrow Camp remember from the 1960s and 1970s.  But even at her reduced size and speed, Jeanie certainly hasn’t lost her mental agility, her sense of humor, or her vivid memory of her time at camp.   For 30 years (1958-1988), Jeanie was part of the team “Manny and Jeanie,” who owned and operated Gold Arrow Camp and were loved by generations of campers and staff.  Jeanie’s accomplishments at Gold Arrow were many.  She brought her business sense and woman’s touch to camp, and helped Manny create a successful and world-renown summer camp.

Audrey “Sunshine” Monke & Jeanie Vezie

Gold Arrow Years

Manny Vezie started Gold Arrow Camp in 1933 as a six-week program for boys. Sixty boys attended camp each summer at his remote site on Huntington Lake in the Sierra National Forest.  After marrying Manny in 1958, Jeanie gave up her successful real estate career in Los Angeles to join him and serve as Co-Director/Owner of Gold Arrow Camp with him. It was not an easy decision for the self-proclaimed “city girl.” In Jeanie’s words, “It was a pretty big change, but when you’re truly in love, and you have a guy whose charisma is unequaled, you can’t lose.”

“When I first arrived at camp, it was known as ‘The Last of the Rugged Camps.’  In fact, that was the tag line on Manny’s brochure.  It was definitely appropriately named.  It was for boys only.  Manny felt that boys should be given an opportunity to live close to nature, away from city life and the luxuries of home.   Not all parents and boys agreed with this concept, but those boys who did attend had an unforgettable experience.  Many have said it helped in shaping their lives and character, and gave them an appreciation of nature and great self-confidence.”

Right from the start, Jeanie determined that they would need more campers and a higher income in order to continue operating the camp.  After trying some different session lengths, they settled on offering two four-week sessions each summer.  Unfortunately, they still did not have enough campers to make the camp profitable.  That’s when Jeanie had an idea that would change the future of Gold Arrow.

“I recalled that some parents had asked why we couldn’t have girls at Gold Arrow.  I broached this to Manny and, at first, he said it was out of the question.  One day he asked me if I thought girls would like Gold Arrow.  I said, ‘I’m a girl, and I like it.”  Finally, we decided to try enrolling boys in July and girls in August.  None of these changes made over the years were easy to get Manny’s approval but, after they were made, he always agreed they were good.”

During the first year that girls attended Gold Arrow, thirty five girls enrolled.  “We went with them to every program and outpost to get first-hand knowledge of their reaction.  Manny and I always went through the camp at bedtime to say goodnight to the campers.  The first night of the girl camp, we came to Holley Rauen’s bed, and emotion ran high when we saw Holley’s cover was her daddy’s five year blanket [embroidered blanket presented to five year campers and staff].  Holley’s dad had signed her up as the first girl camper Gold Arrow ever had.”

In the 1970s, Jeanie was able to convince Manny to allow girls and boys to attend camp at the same time.  Gold Arrow Camp became a coeducational camp, and the popularity of the program among Southern California families grew.  From the time Jeanie got involved with the camp in 1958 to her final year in 1988, the camp’s summer enrollment grew from 60 campers who attended for one six-week session to 800 campers who attended for two or four week sessions spread throughout the summer.

Asked about how she and Manny worked together, Jeanie responded, “Manny and I were an excellent team. Manny handled the program and equipment and I supervised the infirmary, the kitchen, purchase of food and handled the business office.  I also enjoyed acting as summer mom to campers and staff.  We worked together in the hiring of personnel.”

Jeanie was known for her “Jeanie Talks,” which were usually held in the Vezie’s cabin near the office.  The talks were generally the result of some type of camper or counselor misbehavior, and through her counseling, Jeanie would turn the situation into a learning experience not to be repeated.  “Jeanie Baths” were another of Jeanie’s innovations at camp.  When Jeanie saw the appearance of a group of campers getting a little too rugged, she would fill several tubs she had lined up in the maintenance area.  The young campers would jump in the bath tubs with their bathing suits on, and Jeanie would proceed to scrub the dirt off of them with sponges and brushes.  This was done as needed, and especially when preparing the campers to return home.

Jeanie had many more accomplishments at Gold Arrow Camp.  After a fire destroyed the original camp “cook house” (dining facility), Jeanie sketched on paper her idea for a state-of-the art kitchen with separate baking room and dish washing areas.  Her building included a second floor for offices.  The camp architect drew up the plans, based on Jeanie’s design, for the dining porch facility that is still being enjoyed to this day.

One of Jeanie’s favorite camp memories is of having the oldest cabin of girls serenade her and Manny with “Edelweiss” at the final banquet of the camp session.  Even today, the song remains Jeanie’s favorite.  But Jeanie’s camp years and business acumen are just one chapter in this strong woman’s life story.

Early Years

Manny & Jeanie Vezie (Circa 1980’s)

Jeanie was born on a ranch in Western Nebraska on February 17, 1913.  “We lived on this ranch, and in February out west the weather can get pretty bad.  There was a big blizzard.  The doctor couldn’t make it.  My father sent a team to go to the farm next door to get the midwife. When the midwife arrived, she found me all cleaned up and my dad holding me by the pot belly stove.  “I suppose there was a little whisky in it too,” was what my dad said about the bottle he had fed me.  My dad had delivered me. He took me with him when he was going to work.  He took me everywhere with him.   I was my dad’s favorite from the beginning.”

Jeanie’s most vivid childhood memory is of the tragic deaths of her two sisters.  “The big, terrible flu epidemic came in 1918 along with the war.  We had a family doctor who came to see us and saw how terribly sick everyone was.  I was five and I had a little sister Charlotte, who was three.    We were very sick with the flu.  The doctor brought us two registered nurses to live with us, and they did the best they could.  First my seven year old sister died.  I still remember, as little as I was, they took me down stairs and let me kiss her on the cheek to say “good bye.”  The next day, I did the same to my older sister.”

 Jeanie also had an older brother and younger sister, Juanita, who was born after the deaths of her two other sisters.  Jeanie’s brother was her protector who chaperoned her at high school dances and always looked out for her.  The person who had the biggest influence on her, however, was her mother, who Jeanie describes as “the strongest woman ever created.”

 As a young adult, Jeanie found herself living in Los Angeles due to a job opportunity.  “I had a gorgeous apartment and with the war [World War II] happening, there was an influx of people on the west coast,  soldiers by the score, and nobody could find a place to live.  A real good friend of mine who worked at the lumber co said, ‘Why don’t I give up my apartment and come live with you?”’  And she did, then my sister’s husband was a pilot, so she moved in with us, then there were four of us.  We had a great big living room, we assigned two to do the cleaning and two to do the cooking each week.  We just had a ball.  We had the best time.  It was getting to be Christmas time, and we got the bright idea that we would look for some GI’s that looked forlorn and lonely.  I just had bought a beautiful brand new car the day before Pearl Harbor, and I got in this car and drove around, and every time I saw a GI leaning on a wall, alone, I would say,

‘How would you like to have Christmas dinner with four adorable and beautiful girls?”’

‘Finally, I had the car so jammed full that I couldn’t get any more in.  By this time, the girls were cooking dinner.  We told the boys, ‘Look, if you wish, you can go in the bathroom and shower and shave.’   We had bought a whole bunch of toys, and put them under the tree.  We had a bar at one end of the room.  Then, they didn’t know quite what to do when the evening was over.  We said, Look, boys, do you have a place to stay?’

The neighbor from upstairs came over, and we were worried that they would be upset at us for making too much noise and having men over, but they said, ‘Our son’s overseas, and we just hope there’s someone like you girls over seas.’  Their son never came home.”

With almost a century of life’s experiences and adventures, one thing is certain:  Jeanie was never too scared to take a risk or to take charge.  The positive influence Jeanie had on the lives of the campers and staff at Gold Arrow Camp is something impossible to measure.   The thankful phone calls and letters Jeanie continues to receive offer her just a small glimpse of the impact she had on countless campers and staff.

Categories: Alumni, Community, Friendship, Fun, GAC, Tradition, Traditions, Whadda Whadda Whadda | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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