How Children Succeed by Paul Tough - Z suggested this book to me when she saw it in the parent section of her school's book fair flier. "This looks like a book you would like Mom. Let's get it for you!" I guess she thought this title would make a welcome addition to the stack of books on my bedside table that include "How to Parent Your Inexplicably Difficult Child in 982,345,234 Easy Steps" and "Parenting! Just What You Thought It Would Be, Only Way, Way Harder!"
I put it on my library list as a gesture to her. We have a thing, Z and I, where we suggest books to each other and since I want her to at least give my suggestions a try, I figured I ought to do the same.
I was surprised at how interested I was in this book. I guess it dovetails with my previous undergraduate psychology studies and my current interest in making sure my children don't wind up assholes or homeless or homeless assholes. Plus it's well written and I'll read pretty much anything when an author makes it pleasurable to bask in their words and turn the pages.
Tough's main assertions - that IQ is not the be-all and end-all predictor of adult success, that character traits such as perseverance, self control and resiliency may be more important to a child's success - are not new to most of us. But Tough examines the latest research from psychology, neurology, economics and sociology which tries to answer the question of why some children succeed and not others. Poverty has long been understood as a correlate to poor academic outcomes, but why? What specifically causes children to go off the rails?
He gently dismisses the current popular belief that a lack of early academic stimulation for poor kids is the main culprit. Programs that encourage at-risk parents to talk to their babies more have been held up as a simple solution to the success gap but they are not as successful as hoped. Instead, he points to neurological research that shows significant early stress is the main culprit, that early stress actually rewires the developing brain to be less resilient, and less able to manage stress, later in life. He also highlights research on the effects of a lack of healthy attachments to caregivers, which he says is a challenging parenting style to change, often embedded in cultural assumptions of the role of children and passed down from generation to generation. He studies programs that been instituted to help children and parents overcome these issues including, early parenting education to help parents not only speak and read to their infants more but also to consistently engage with them in loving, attachment-forming ways. The larger question of how to reduce the stress in the homes of these families so as to reduce the negative impact on the vulnerable brains of young children is a harder, slipperier fish to fry.
For me, as a relatively affluent parent in an affluent area, I found this book interesting from a larger policy perspective but also a personal, parental perspective. While Tough rightly mostly focuses on what parents, teachers and society should be doing to help poor students with deeply stressed parents in crumbling schools who are most in danger of failing, he still gives plenty for the rest of us to think about in our own parenting. Parents should focus on the strength of their attachment to their children and how that relationship is the basis of their children's development. Children in every socioeconomic group need to be taught that their test scores are only small part of their success, that their brains get stronger the more they try and fail and try again. The message that struggling through adversity makes you stronger is one all parents and children should embrace.
For those of us in a cushy suburb, this means we parents need to keep our homes safe and low-stress but still allow our children to fall on their faces - literally and figuratively - as they learn and grow.