THE BLOG

Character Is Destiny in How Children Succeed

10/26/2012 05:24 pm ET | Updated Dec 26, 2012

After my father died a month ago, I spent hours immersing myself in his life's work in order to write an accurate obituary and eulogy. This process reminded me of all he accomplished -- as an entrepreneur, pilot, farmer, and civic leader -- and all he preached about character and success, and the relationship between the two. Ditherers, hedonists, late sleepers -- these he considered unlikely candidates for the good life, one he defined as rich in work, autonomy, earned rewards, and family harmony.

Now with the publication of How Children Succeed, journalist Paul Tough's powerful new book on the building blocks of success, my parents' wisdom on how to make it gains some scientific grounding. Tough makes the case that non-cognitive qualities, rather than what we have in the way of gray matter, is what determines success. I.Q. is not destiny -- character is.

Tough studies new research on the science behind learning and child development, spends time with at-risk children striving to overcome poverty and family dysfunction, and weaves together the thinking of psychologists, educators and scientists who are trying to tease out the distinctive qualities that lead to positive life outcomes. From these explorations, he finds that the best predictor of success in school, at work, and at home is the presence or absence of distinctive character traits. Grit, self-control, zest, conscientiousness, and optimism, to name some of the most important qualities, are more apt to deliver happy futures than mere brains. Most important for educators, these character traits are malleable. And if they can be changed, they can be taught.

Tough's main concern are the children born into poverty and broken families, with correspondingly dim futures. After examining attachment research carried out by neuroscientist Michael Meaney, Tough finds that children's brain development is closely tied to the tenderness and affection they receive as infants. Children growing up in chaotic and dangerous circumstances without responsive caregivers develop stress responses to normal life that impede later learning and social adjustment; they lack perseverance and focus. The bad news is that many children born into poverty are reared in just such environments, where the often-single mothers in charge are too overwhelmed and deprived themselves to offer much tenderness. The good news is that with kindness and attention from a loving caregiver -- and it doesn't have to be the mother -- "the effect of all those environment stressors, from overcrowding to poverty to family turmoil," Tough writes, "was almost entirely eliminated."

Tough also explains how character traits associated with success can be taught and shaped if emphasized by teachers, parents and caring adults. He introduces us to many educators who are dedicated to reversing poverty's impact on kids and whose emphasis on character has delivered promising results. At the KIPP charter schools, established 18 years ago to improve the odds for low-income and underprivileged kids, fifth graders are drilled to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod, and track the speaker -- a classroom acronym teachers call SLANT -- to instill unfamiliar rules for appropriate behavior in school, college, and professional life. Along with their academic report cards, students at KIPP Infinity in New York City also receive character report cards that assess them on 24 character traits linked to success. The evaluations allow teachers to identify a child's transgression and invite him to think about what he was thinking -- called metacognition -- and then reflect over how to correct it. Those KIPP kids who can think through their actions and adjust them next time are more likely to thrive.

We also meet some extraordinary young people who have clawed their way out of grim beginnings with the right kind of intervention and instruction. There's James, a floundering student at I.S. 318 in Brooklyn who becomes a chess superstar when his relentless instructor challenges him to examine his mistakes and to slow down before making moves. There's also Kewauna, an apparently doomed African-American, who goes after her dream to "be one of those business ladies walking downtown with my briefcase," and finishes her first year of college with a 3.8 GPA. While infants need nurturing from their caregivers, "what pushes middle-school students to concentrate and practice...is the unexpected experience of someone taking them seriously, believing in their abilities, and challenging them to improve themselves," Tough writes.

He is most worried about the barriers that block children born into poverty, but he also examines the problems unique to privileged children. Like psychologist and author Madeline Levine, whose recent book Teach Your Children Well instructs otherwise well-intended parents to value character ahead of achievement, Tough finds evidence that children of the well-off are often denied the hard life experiences that would allow them to develop the qualities that breed success. It's a paradox: in their zeal to rear successful kids, parents undermine their children's future ability to succeed. By emphasizing naked achievement over learning for its own sake, parents kill curiosity. By intervening with teachers to debate a B-, they thwart the discomfort of "failure," and the grit that overcoming disappointment builds. By filling their kids' lives with competing extracurriculars -- Y and travel teams, chorus and field hockey -- parents send the message that keeping your options open is more important than conscientiously committing to any one of them.

And there are chemical consequences. Tough shares research carried out by Columbia psychology professor Suniya Luthar, which finds that affluent children are more likely to drink, smoke cigarettes and pot, and use harder drugs than their lower-income peers, presumably to blunt their excessive anxiety and depression. For those of us who live in an affluent bubble like the one Tough explores, none of this comes as a surprise.

While underprivileged kids are often receptive to character training when they believe it holds rewards, kids on the other end of the economic spectrum are less enthusiastic. Tough spends time at Riverdale Country School, an elite private school in Riverdale, New York, where school head Dominic Randolph explains the challenge there of weaving character into the curriculum. Kids already have been bombarded and anesthetized by the type of messaging associated with morality: be kind, be respectful, be inclusive. But the character training that improves performance is less palatable to high-achieving, competitive parents, he explains, particularly when correction implies a parental lapse. Randolph is reluctant to launch a character report card like the one that KIPP Infinity uses for fear that parents would find a way to game it. And encouraging appropriate risk-taking among students -- gambles that can lead to genuine failure and corresponding resilience -- would be unacceptable to parents who already protest low Bs. "In most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything," Randolph says. Tough concludes that what parents want from high-end schools like Riverdale "is a high probability of non-failure."

How Children Succeed leans on science and research to reach its conclusions, but the book sings because of its humanity. It makes the case that poverty ought to matter to everyone, regardless of party affiliation, and that responsible governing and citizenship demands that we pay attention to children born with few options and little opportunity. It offers hope for low-income kids living in rocky families with no legacy of success, academic or otherwise. It also provides inspiration for disillusioned teachers, social workers, and other first responders who make up the social safety net. "In adolescence, these (character) strengths are mostly developed in relationships with caring adults," Tough explained to me in an email about what ordinary citizens can do to help. "So when community members can serve as mentors or tutors or friends or advisers to young people in need of that kind of guidance, it can make a big difference."

For parents and educators living in wealthy American communities, where children are simultaneously pampered and pressured, Tough's conclusions amount to an altogether different challenge: if you love your kids, let them struggle. This imperative brings me back to my father, who was full of insight when it came to the good life. I have vivid memories of him swiveling around in his office chair, looking up from the piles on his desk, and reminding me, when I begged for some rescue or way out, that "parents don't do their kids any favors by making life easy for them." In How Children Succeed, Dad's wisdom lives on.