How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character By Paul Tough

How This Book Benefits Modern Parents

Most Modern Parents these days have begun to understand that academic success involves more than just IQ – it takes character traits such as grit, resiliency, and self-confidence. Fortunately, these traits CAN be taught to every child, and this book gives you the scientific background behind why this is true AND provides the parent practical strategies on how to encourage these character traits in the home.

Do I recommend this book? YES!

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My Notes/Thoughts About The Book

This is my book summary of How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

  • “The founders of Tools of the Mind believe that these skills, which they group together under the rubric self-regulation, will do more to lead to positive outcomes for their students, in first grade and beyond, than the traditional menu of pre-academic skills”


  • “But in the past decade, and especially in the past few years, a disparate congregation of economists, educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists have begun to produce evidence that calls into question many of the assumptions behind the cognitive hypothesis. 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”


  • “This book is about an idea, one that is growing clearer and gathering momentum in classrooms and clinics and labs and lecture halls across the country and around the world. According to this new way of thinking, the conventional wisdom about child development over the past few decades has been misguided. We have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children, and we have been using the wrong strategies to help nurture and teach those skills”


  • “If there is one person at the hub of this new interdisciplinary network, it is James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago. Heckman might seem an unlikely figure to be leading a challenge to the supremacy of cognitive skill”


  • “Heckman became a professor of economics, first at Columbia University and then at the University of Chicago, and in 2000 he won the Nobel Prize in Economics for a complex statistical method he had invented in the 1970s. Among economists, Heckman is known for his skill in econometrics, a particularly arcane type of statistical analysis that is generally incomprehensible to anyone except other”


  • “The Perry Preschool Project is famous in social science circles, and Heckman had encountered it, glancingly, several times before in his career. As a case for early-childhood intervention, the experiment had always been considered something of a failure. The treatment children did do significantly better on cognitive tests while attending the preschool and for a year or two afterward, but the gains did not last, and by the time the treatment children were in the third grade, their IQ scores were no better than the control group’s. But when Heckman and other researchers looked at the long-term results of Perry, the data appeared more promising. It was true that the Perry kids hadn’t experienced lasting IQ benefits. But something important had happened to them in preschool, and whatever it was, the positive effects resonated for decades. Compared to the control group, the Perry students were more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to be employed at age twenty-seven, more likely to be earning more than twenty-five thousand dollars a year at age forty, less likely ever to have been arrested, and less likely to have spent time on welfare”


  • “Heckman began to rummage more deeply into the Perry study, and he learned that in the 1960s and 1970s, researchers had collected some data on the students that had never been analyzed: reports from teachers in elementary school rating both the treatment and the control children on “personal behavior” and “social development.” The first term tracked how often each student swore, lied, stole, or was absent or late; the second one rated each student’s level of curiosity as well as his or her relationships with classmates and teachers. Heckman labeled these noncognitive skills, because they were entirely distinct from IQ. And after three years of careful analysis, Heckman and his researchers were able to ascertain that those noncognitive factors, such as curiosity, self-control, and social fluidity, were responsible for as much as two-thirds of the total benefit that Perry gave its students.”


  • “Surprise number one was that they created a program that didn’t do much in the long term for IQ but did improve behavior and social skills. Surprise number two was that it helped anyway—for the kids in Ypsilanti, those skills and the underlying traits they reflected turned out to be very valuable indeed”


  • “her behind each year, getting in trouble, skipping class, and talking back to teachers. When she was in sixth grade, living outside of Minneapolis, she collected seventy-two referrals for poor behavior”


  • “As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school. When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet”


  • “The reason that researchers who care about the gap between rich and poor are so excited about executive functions is that these skills are not only highly predictive of success; they are also quite malleable, much more so than other cognitive skills. The prefrontal cortex is more responsive to intervention than other parts of the brain, and it stays flexible well into adolescence and early adulthood. So if we can improve a child’s environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase his prospects for success in a particularly efficient way”


  • “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. So for a few wild years, we are all madly processing incentives without a corresponding control system to keep our behavior in check. And if you combine that standard-issue whacked-out adolescent neurochemistry with an overloaded HPA axis, you’ve got a particularly toxic brew”


  • “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”


  • “There is a direct link between Mary Ainsworth’s research on attachment and Nadine Burke Harris’s clinic in Bayview−Hunters Point, and that link is a San Francisco psychologist named Alicia Lieberman. In the mid-1970s, Lieberman studied with Ainsworth at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. It was the era when Ainsworth was conducting her first big study of parenting and attachment, and under Ainsworth’s direction, Lieberman, then a graduate student, spent long hours watching and coding videotape of new mothers interacting with their babies, looking for the small, specific examples of sensitive and responsive maternal behavior that promoted secure attachment for the infants”


  • “Lieberman told me that while she admires the study that Sroufe and Egeland did in Minnesota, she feels there are two important ideas missing from their analysis. The first is an explicit recognition of how plainly difficult it is for many parents in neighborhoods like Bayview−Hunters Point to form secure attachments with their children. “Often, the circumstances of a mother’s life overwhelm her natural coping capacity,” Lieberman told me when I visited one of the clinics where she works in San Francisco. “When you are bombarded by poverty, uncertainty, and fear, it takes a superhuman quality to provide the conditions for a secure attachment.” In addition, a mother’s own attachment history can make her parenting challenge even greater: research from the Minnesota study and elsewhere shows that if a new mother experienced insecure attachment with her parents as a child (no matter what her class background), then it will be exponentially more difficult for her to provide a secure, nurturing environment for her own children.”


  • “The other thing that is underemphasized in the Minnesota study, Lieberman said, is the fact that parents can overcome histories of trauma and poor attachment; that they can change their approach to their children from one that produces anxious attachment to one that promotes secure attachment and healthy functioning. Some parents can accomplish this transformation on their own, Lieberman said, but most need help”


  • “Lieberman’s treatment is relatively intensive, administered in weekly sessions that can continue for as long as a year. But the principle behind it—improving children’s outcomes by promoting stronger relationships between children and their parents—is increasingly in use across the country in a wide variety of interventions. And the results, when these interventions are evaluated, are often powerful”


  • “Wechsler told me. “But even if you can’t always take away bad housing or bad schooling, you can build in the parent an inner strength and resilience, so they can be the best parent they can be”


  • “Peterson identified a set of strengths that were, according to his research, especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement. After a few small adjustments, they settled on a final list of seven:


    • grit
    • self-control
    • zest
    • social intelligence
    • gratitude
    • optimism
    • curiosity
  • Over the next year and a half, Duckworth worked with Levin and Randolph to turn the list of seven strengths into a two-page evaluation tool, a questionnaire”
  • “Instead, they seemed to be the ones who possessed certain other gifts, skills like optimism and resilience and social agility. They were the students who were able to recover from bad grades and resolve to do better next time; who could bounce back from unhappy breakups or fights with their parents; who could persuade professors to give them extra help after class; who could resist the urge to go out to the movies and instead stay home and study. Those traits weren’t enough by themselves to earn a student a BA, Levin knew. But for young people without the benefit of a lot of family resources, without the kind of safety net that their wealthier peers enjoyed, these characteristics proved to be an indispensable part of making it to college graduation day”


  • “According to Seligman and Peterson, the value of these twenty-four character strengths did not come from their relationship to any particular system of ethics but from their practical benefit—what you could actually gain by possessing and expressing them. Cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to “the good life,” a life that was not just happy but meaningful and fulfilling”


  • “For many of us, character refers to something innate and unchanging, a core set of attributes that define one’s very essence. Seligman and Peterson defined character in a different way: a set of abilities or strengths that are very much changeable—entirely malleable, in fact. They are skills you can learn; they are skills you can practice; and they are skills you can teach”


  • “What intrigued Levin and Randolph about the approach Seligman was taking was that it was focused not on finger-wagging morality but on personal growth and achievement”


  • “The thing that I think is great about the character-strength approach is that it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment,” he told me. “The inevitable problem with the values-and-ethics approach is you get into, well, Whose values? Whose ethics”


  • “Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying—but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”


  • “Duckworth finds it useful to divide the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition. Each one, she says, is necessary to achieve long-term goals, but neither is sufficient alone. Most of us are familiar with the experience of possessing motivation but lacking volition: You can be extremely motivated to lose weight, for example, but unless you have the volition—the willpower, the self-control—to put down the cherry Danish and pick up the free weights, you’re not going to succeed. If a child is highly motivated, the self-control techniques and exercises Duckworth tried to teach those fifth-grade students might be very helpful. But what if students just aren’t motivated to achieve the goals their teachers or parents want them to achieve? Then, Duckworth acknowledges, all the self-control tricks in the world aren’t going to help”


  • “Part of the complexity is that different personality types respond to different motivations. We know this because of a series of experiments undertaken in 2006 by Carmit Segal, then a postdoctoral student in the Harvard economics department and now a professor at a university in Zurich. Segal wanted to test how personality and incentives interacted, and she chose as her vehicle one of the easiest tests imaginable, an evaluation of basic clerical skills called the coding-speed test”


  • “What the coding-speed test really measured, Segal realized, was something more fundamental than clerical skill: the test takers’ inclination and ability to force themselves to care about the world’s most boring test. The recruits, who had more at stake, put more effort into the coding test than the NLSY kids did, and on such a simple test, that extra level of exertion was enough for them to beat out their more-educated peers”


  • “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”


  • “In Character Strengths and Virtues, Peterson and Seligman contended that “there is no true disadvantage of having too much self-control”; it is a capacity, like strength or beauty or intelligence, with no inherent downside—the more you have, the better. But an opposing school of thought, led by the late Jack Block, a psychological researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, argued that too much self-control could be just as big a problem as too little. Overcontrolled people are “excessively constrained,” Block and two colleagues wrote in one paper. They “have difficulty making decisions [and] may unnecessarily delay gratification or deny themselves pleasure.” According to these researchers, conscientious people are classic squares: they’re compulsive, anxious, and repressed”


  • “In 2011, that pool of evidence grew further when a team of researchers published the results of a three-decade-long study of more than a thousand young people in New Zealand that showed, in new detail, clear connections between childhood self-control and adult outcomes. When their subjects were between the ages of three and eleven, the researchers, led by the psychologists Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt and including Brent Roberts, used a variety of tests and questionnaires to measure the children’s self-control and then combined those results into a single self-control rating for each child. When they surveyed the subjects at age thirty-two, they found that the childhood self-control measure had predicted a wide array of outcomes. The lower a subject’s self-control in childhood, the more likely he or she was at thirty-two to smoke, to have health problems, to have a bad credit rating, and to have been in trouble with the law. In some cases, the effect sizes were huge: Adults with the lowest self-control scores in childhood were three times more likely to have been convicted of a crime than those who scored highest as kids.”


  • “NYU psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues. Oettingen discovered in her research that people tend to use three strategies when they are setting goals and that two of those strategies don’t work very well. Optimists favor indulging, which means imagining the future they’d like to achieve (for a middle-school student, that might mean getting an A in math next year) and vividly envisioning all the good things that will go along with it—the praise, the self-satisfaction, the future success. Oettingen found that indulging feels really good when you’re doing it—it can trigger a nice dopamine surge—but it doesn’t correlate at all with actual achievement”


  • “Pessimists tend to use a strategy Oettingen calls dwelling, which involves thinking about all the things that will get in the way of their accomplishing their goals. If our prototypical middle-school student hoping for an A in math was a dweller, he might think about how he never finishes his homework, and there’s never anywhere quiet for him to study anyway, and besides, he always gets distracted in class. Unsurprisingly, dwelling doesn’t correlate well with achievement either”


  • “The third method is called mental contrasting, and it combines elements of the other two methods. It means concentrating on a positive outcome and simultaneously concentrating on the obstacles in the way. Doing both at the same time, Duckworth and Oettingen wrote in a recent paper, “creates a strong association between future and reality that signals the need to overcome the obstacles in order to attain the desired future.” The next step to a successful outcome, according to Oettingen, is creating a series of “implementation intentions”—specific plans in the form of if/then statements that link the obstacles with ways to overcome them, such as “If I get distracted by TV after school, then I will wait to watch TV until after I finish my homework.” Oettingen has demonstrated the effectiveness of MCII in a variety of experiments: the strategy has helped dieters eat more fruits and vegetables, high-school juniors prepare more diligently for the practice SAT, and chronic-back-pain patients gain more mobility”


  • “Rules, Kessler points out, are not the same as willpower. They are a metacognitive substitute for willpower. By making yourself a rule (“I never eat fried dumplings”), you can sidestep the painful internal conflict between your desire for fried foods and your willful determination to resist them. Rules, Kessler explains, “provide structure, preparing us for encounters with tempting stimuli and redirecting our attention elsewhere.” Before long, the rules have become as automatic as the appetites they are deflecting”


  • “Two of the most important executive functions are cognitive flexibility and cognitive self-control. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to see alternative solutions to problems, to think outside the box, to negotiate unfamiliar situations. Cognitive self-control is the ability to inhibit an instinctive or habitual response and substitute a more effective, less obvious one”


  • “Researchers, including Michael Meaney and Clancy Blair, have demonstrated that for infants to develop qualities like perseverance and focus, they need a high level of warmth and nurturance from their caregivers. What Spiegel’s success suggests, though, is that when children reach early adolescence, what motivates them most effectively isn’t licking and grooming–style care but a very different kind of attention. Perhaps what pushes middle-school students to concentrate and practice as maniacally as Spiegel’s chess players do is the unexpected experience of someone taking them seriously, believing in their abilities, and challenging them to improve themselves.”




  • “Csikszentmihalyi came up with a word for this state of intense concentration: flow. He wrote that flow moments most often occur “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.” In his early research, Csikszentmihalyi interviewed chess experts, classically trained dancers, and mountain climbers, and he found that all three groups described flow moments in similar ways, as a feeling of intense well-being and control”


  • “high school grades reveal much more than mastery of content. They reveal qualities of motivation and perseverance—as well as the presence of good study habits and time management skills—that tell us a great deal about the chances that a student will complete a college program”


  • “In a 2006 paper, Roderick identified as a critical component of college success “noncognitive academic skills,” including “study skills, work habits, time management, help-seeking behavior, and social/academic problem-solving skills.” Roderick, who borrowed the term noncognitive from James Heckman’s work, wrote that these skills were at the center of an increasingly dire mismatch between American high schools and American colleges and universities”


  • “When the current high-school system was developed, she wrote, the primary goal was to train students not for college but for the workplace, where at the time “critical thinking and problem-solving abilities were not highly valued”


  • “For a while, Roderick wrote, this formula worked well. “High school teachers could have very high workloads and manage them effectively because they expected most of their students to do little work”


  • “But then the world changed, and the American high school didn’t. As the wage premium paid to college graduates increased, high-school students voiced an increasing desire to graduate from college—between 1980 and 2002, the percentage of American tenth-graders who said they wanted to obtain at least a BA doubled, from 40 percent to 80 percent. But most of those students didn’t have the nonacademic skills—the character strengths, as Martin Seligman would put it—they needed to survive in college, and the traditional American high school didn’t have a mechanism to help them acquire those skills”

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