How Children Succeed

I saw her in the high school library on a Tuesday afternoon at the end of the day. She was bent over her books, head in hands, her long black hair a kind of curtain around the pages that were open on the table.

“How are you doing?” I asked, interrupting her study. “It’s so good to see you!”

She lifted her head, brushed back her hair. “Mrs. Powley!”  Then she smiled and answered the question. “I’m fine—but kind of stressed now, to be honest. My classes…” Her voice trailed off.

“What are you taking?”

“Pre-cal, College Comp. Chemistry, Government. You know.”

Yes, I do know.  Kids are sometimes surprised that senior year is stressful. So many of them confuse arriving at senior year with finishing senior year and have the mistaken notion that the last year of high school will be a slide. A lot of them give up when the pressure becomes intense.

But not her.

“I thought you were going to have early dismissal this year,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“I do. But I only work three afternoons a week—40 hours, but only 3 afternoons.”

“Forty hours?”

“I work all day Saturday and Sunday.”  Her parents own one of the small Hispanic grocery stores in the area. I got the sense—last year when she was in my American lit class and from this conversation in October—that her family is working hard to make a go of it. “If I go home,” she continued, “I get distracted. If I stay here, I get my work done. I’ve got to.”

She wants to go to college. She’s not a A student.

I’ve just finished reading, for the second time, Paul Tough’s riveting new book, How Children Succeed. It confirms everything I’ve known for years—from experience and by  instinct—about why some kids are successful and why some aren’t. It isn’t about IQ; it isn’t about money and family resources. It’s about character.

It’s about having the discipline to make yourself study when you’d rather be playing video games or texting or driving around town with your friends on a fine spring night. It’s about persistence—about seeing a teacher after school to get something explained, about giving up a lunch period to visit the math lab, or revising that paper when the assignment to do so is optional. It’s about memorizing the formulas and going over the study notes. It’s about setting a goal and moving toward it, step by step by step.

Character counts.

A few years ago, Paul Tough wrote Whatever It Takes, a book about the Harlem Children’s Zone in NYC. It was while he was researching that book that he became interested in issues of success and failure. Research shows, he found, that character is a better predictor of success in college than GPA scores. In his book, Tough identifies a handful of character strengths that can be taught in school if they haven’t been cultivated at home.

Most of Tough’s book is focused on the children of poverty. He summarizes a number of studies conducted by psychologists, neuroscientists, and even an economist that point to character strengths such as determination, resilience, conscientiousness, self-control, and what Tough calls “grit” as being the reasons some kids, against all odds, succeed. But where does it comes from, this thing we call “character”?

To begin with, children who are nurtured when they are young are more likely to develop these character strengths than the children who are not. Why?

There is a physiological explanation. The conditions of poverty, under which twenty to twenty-five percent of our children live—conditions of family dysfunction like violence, anxiety, abandonment, alcoholism, abuse, frequent relocations—cause stress for kids. The stress of living in poverty causes changes in kids’ cognitive functioning—and that means these kids can’t sit still, can’t pay attention, can’t control their emotions. They do poorly in school. “When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings,” writes Tough, “it’s hard to learn the alphabet.”

The preventative—and the antidote—is a strong, nurturing relationship with an adult. Ideally, in childhood, with a mother—but not necessarily a birth mother. Tough makes the point that it is the rearing mother that has the impact, so a child raised by grandparents, by an adoptive family, by another relative who gives the child the love and guidance and support she or he needs can become a young person with these crucial character strengths. The role of the mother—whoever she or he is—is to soothe, guide, counsel, and support the child in learning to deal with adversity. She’s the teacher, if you will, of a home school course in stress management.

That might lead you to think that it is only the children of poverty who lose out on early character training, not the children of privilege. But Tough points out, in observations based upon the reflections of teachers and principals as well as research he cites, that parents who rush in to rescue their children whenever they are in a tight spot—those we call “helicopter parents”–are just as likely to be disabling their children as the neglectful parent living in poverty. Increasingly, even at the college level, teachers know the kind of parent I mean: those who contest every poor score their child receives or seek accommodations no other student will have. (Surely there is a retest? Surely the extenuating circumstances I am telling you about excuse the fact that he didn’t pay attention in class, didn’t come in for help, didn’t study? Surely he can do a make-up because his outside commitments—sports or 4H or whatever—had him just too busy for your test?)  Or, parents whose relationships with their children are “distant,” but whose expectations are nonetheless high—sometimes impossibly high.

By never allowing their children to learn how to manage a disappointment or a setback, these parents, too, are handicapping their children. If a child is never allowed to fail, he or she will lack resilience—the ability to bounce back after a defeat. My grandmother used to say: Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. She had a point.

But it won’t work to throw up our hands in despair and write off such children. We can’t just chalk up their failures to “lack of parental support” or “helicopter” parenting and be done with the matter. Tough goes on to say that the character traits he enumerates and explains in his book can be taught in school. Using examples of whole-school programs, classroom initiatives, and extra-curricular clubs (such as a chess club in an impoverished school community that has led to amazing accomplishments for some middle school students), Tough shows how teachers and principals can make a difference, can instill those character traits even in students who have lost out at home. Furthermore, character can be shaped, the examples show—even as late as during the teenage years. It’s not ideal, it’s not easy, it’s not the same—but it can happen.

What it takes is a mentor, a teacher, who believes in that student, teaches that student well, expects the best—and gets the best. Remember that Tough specified a strong, nurturing relationship with an adult, a specification that has implications for turning these kids around even as late as high school. It could be a pastor, a 4H leader, a surrogate mother—but because kids go to school, it is often a teacher. Every good teacher I know has had at least one student like this, often many more: a student in whom the teacher invested an amazing amount of time and energy and effort, one they know they reached, one they know they turned around, one who will forever be changed.


Back to my girl in the library: I remembered how, last year in late May, when she came in after school to make up a quiz, she stayed after that and asked me for help with vocabulary. She wanted to learn more roots. I gave her one of my books and a huge list of Greek and Latin roots and their derivatives.

Who knows where her determination, her discipline comes from? I think she must have the kind of continuing parental support that breeds success. Consider the work ethic of her family. She herself works 40 hours. It seems too much for a 17-year old. But in this case, she’s the lucky one.

So in the library that day last October, I told her not to worry. “Keep on like this and you will be fine. Determination and self-discipline are what make for success in college. You’ve got what it takes.”

And she does.

4 thoughts on “How Children Succeed

  1. On a quiet morning when I’ve been pondering how to deal with a strong-willed toddler, your words seem to be directed straight at me. Being twice the age of most parents of toddlers, I often question my methods and wonder if I’m measuring up, if her life will be better than it would have been, if I’m giving her the tools to deal with the eftects of her genetics. Thanks, friend.


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