Parenting books -- love 'em or leave 'em. Most times, I leave them after perusing the table of contents. I don't like the one-size-fits-all approach that so many of them take. But Paul Tough's excellent new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, rises to the top of the parenting book pile for its deep exploration of failure and the ways in which it builds character in our kids.
First, a word about character. It's as unique to each person as her DNA. Tough offers the revolutionary concept that character, unlike DNA, is not fixed or completely innate in a person. It is, in a word that recurs throughout How Children Succeed, malleable. I confess that I was initially very uncomfortable with the word malleable for its implication of weakness and undue influence. But read Tough's book and you quickly learn that malleable is an asset.
Tough talked about character in a recent interview, citing a chain of charter schools called KIPP and its dedicated founder, David Levin. KIPP schools dole out report cards for academic performance and character assessment. "Dave is doing new and important work," Tough said, adding:
He has a new vision for character and it's quite scientific in that he's trying to figure out which character strengths make a difference in a kid's success. And at the root of his research and thinking is the assertion that character is... a set of qualities that [enables] kids to change themselves and qualities that parents and teachers can instill.
Tough presents examples of low-income kids who have had the opportunity through mentoring programs, family members or discerning teachers to pause and look inward to shape and reshape their character. Kewauna Lerma was such a student. On the fast track to derailing her life, Kewauna did an about-face during her junior year of high school. She still lived at the poverty level on the South Side of Chicago, picking fights at school and struggling academically. But a spark was lighted inside of Kewauna through a mentoring program and encouragement from her mother and great-grandmother.
"Kewauna," explained Tough, "became motivated to be a different person. It was very telling that she changed in that it came from her clear vision that she had of herself. That vision was further clarified in the program she was in as well as by her family."
There is no question that kids mired in poverty have it tougher than children of affluence. But Tough admirably teases apart the hazards of having it too good without falling into the "poor little rich kid" syndrome.
For wisdom on the challenges faced by kids who seemingly have it all he turned to Dominic Randolph, headmaster of the tony Riverdale School in Riverdale, N.Y. -- a well-off section of the Bronx. Randolph was initially the subject of a New York Times Magazine article that Tough wrote last fall. In that article, Tough explored Randolph's claim that failure and character lead to academic success.
Advocating for failure is a radical step for a head of school where the majority of the class goes on to Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges. But that's exactly what Randolph did when he came to Riverdale in 2009. Tough noted:
[T]here is this way that certain high-pressure academic environments can stress kids out. They are on this treadmill versus climbing a mountain. At KIPP kids are climbing a mountain and it's a bigger challenge than staying on that familiar treadmill. I think that's why KIPP kids get out of college with more success and character. It's the way you get on a life path, not the actual life path you end up on, and that makes all the difference.
Tough points to the documentary The Race to Nowhere as a prime of example of affluence undoing kids. Vicky Abeles, the mother of three kids who were scorched by the heat of extreme academic competition, framed her film as a cautionary tale. I'm not a fan of the film because I think it's slanted toward sensationalism. Tough thinks it's a helpful example of the importance of establishing a good relationship with failure. "Affluent kids," he said, "are in suspended animation throughout college without every hitting road bumps. Then they hit an obstacle in their 20's and they don't have resources to deal with it."
I think that Tough is on to something big here. We talked about post-college choices that kids who have graduated competitive colleges have made. He asserts that ironically their fear of failure steers them toward investment banking and management consulting jobs.
I wonder if our adult kids' pervasive fear of failure hasn't returned them to their childhood bedrooms, dissatisfied and unemployed. Yes, it's a tough economy out there, but have we made them afraid to take chances, to bypass meaningful engagement and social justice opportunities?
Which brings me back to where I started. Perhaps character is not destiny, that it's malleable enough to forge the kind of future that can fulfill our kids.