“Helping Children Succeed” by Paul Tough

Journalist Paul Tough has followed up his 2012 book How Children Succeed with Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why (2016). Whereas the former focused on explaining why building such character traits as perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control was how kids do well academically, the latter distills the same type of info into a briefer and more practical manual.

Kirkus Reviews summarizes the stance articulated in Helping Children Succeed, i.e., that education starts at birth, and children from all socioeconomic classes can receive strategies that are effective:

The author discusses the ways in which parents, teachers, and other adults can help children succeed despite their backgrounds. Poor health, neglect, abuse, and deficiencies in early cognitive stimulation are just a few of the reasons why children fail to thrive…Beginning with infancy, children need positive face-to-face time with their parents. Strong bonding between parents and child before age 1 enables the child to learn that his or her environment is safe. Once a stable home life is established, children can then enter the school system, where they need to encounter teachers who have positive attitudes, work toward establishing strong relationships, and truly enjoy teaching in a creative manner.

Selected Quotes

Babies whose parents responded readily and fully to their cries in the first months of life were, at one year, more independent and intrepid than babies whose parents had ignored their cries. In preschool, the pattern continued—the children whose parents had responded most sensitively to their emotional needs as infants were the most self-reliant. Warm, sensitive parental care, Ainsworth and Bowlby contended, created a “secure base” from which a child could explore the world.

People high in conscientiousness get better grades in high school and college; they commit fewer crimes; and they stay married longer. They live longer—and not just because they smoke and drink less. They have fewer strokes, lower blood pressure, and a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

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.

Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University, has analyzed two separate neurological systems that develop in childhood and early adulthood that together have a profound effect on the lives of adolescents. The problem is, these two systems are not well aligned. The first, called the incentive processing system, makes you more sensation seeking, more emotionally reactive, more attentive to social information. (If you’ve ever been a teenager, this may sound familiar.) The second, called the cognitive control system, allows you to regulate all those urges. The reason the teenage years have always been such a perilous time, Steinberg says, is that the incentive processing system reaches its full power in early adolescence while the cognitive control system doesn’t finish maturing until you’re in your twenties.

…(T)he best way for a young person to build character is for him to attempt something where there is a real and serious possibility of failure. In a high-risk endeavor, whether it’s in business or athletics or the arts, you are more likely to experience colossal defeat than in a low-risk one—but you’re also more likely to achieve real and original success.

In the brief video below Tough talks about his ideas:

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