Reading “How Children Succeed”

I added How Children Succeed to my reading list when it first came out, and proceeded to watch it get bumped lower and lower in the list. I regret waiting as long as I did. My children are now 10 and 8, and it would have changed my approach in several areas with them. What follows is my notes and thoughts as I read it, supported by highlights I particularly liked.

It wasn’t poverty itself that was compromising the executive-function abilities of the poor kids. It was the stress that went along with it.

This quote sets the right tone for the book. Paul Tough continues to carefully weave this thread through the book. Success isn’t about fixing poverty. Poverty and academic success are different, and stress can come from many sources. Poverty, however, is likely the most significant cumulative stress that happens to children. Combining poverty with education woes leaves a large chunk of the population underserved or incorrectly targeted. Stress management is key to success, and that’s extremely difficult to teach.

Parents who were attuned to their child’s mood and responsive to his cues produced securely attached children

Securely attached children are these children who are exposed to hardship, but are able to be consoled back to a baseline of a low stress existence. How do you reduce the stress in children, but not be overbearing or a helicopter parent? This hard to find balance exists between allowing (and encouraging) failure but still being present to help pick up the pieces and teach resiliency. I struggle with this, both with children and adults. It’s something I’m very hopeful to improve on.

Pure IQ is stubbornly resistant to improvement after about age eight. But executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood.

I’ve found that with improving my capacity to create space to fail safely, the children end up performing remarkably well. This is worth substantially more than just IQ. My son, in particular, struggles with simply doing the work. Yesterday he asked me if he weren’t in advanced classes would he get straight As? I told him he wouldn’t because his errors are not related to the difficulty in work. He needed to practice and improve his executive functions, and I’m here to help him gain that. He’s failing, feeling the stress, and then working to improve the executive functions and consistently being reassured things will turn out ok. I believe this model is very powerful, and it cultivates the important growth mindset.

“Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was always this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get eight hundreds on their SATs, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest.

Many of his classmates’s parents take different approaches (and it’s a tempting approach). They do the work for the child. The child only has to turn it in, which is really a risky proposition for children these days. Especially this group, because the parents also create organization systems that the children have to just follow the breadcrumbs to a 4.0 GPA with minimal work.

I would vastly prefer my children struggle, learn, practice, and discover their own capacity to improve than they get a 4.0 through elementary school. This is a view that some may say is counter to the goals of education. That’s ok, as Paul Tough explains:

…the students’ self-discipline scores from the previous fall were better predictors of their final GPAs than their IQ scores.

The famous Marshmallow Experiment didn’t end with marshmallows being digested. It ended decades later after following the children with low and high executive-functions. The children with better impulse control were, generally, more successful.

I expect in high school and beyond, the children in elementary school who are being reassured, taught self-organization, and perseverance will outperform others. Maybe. I guess that depends how much time the other student’s parents have to continue setting their children up to succeed by doing their homework for them. Evaluation based on effort is more important than measurement of ability, but we don’t know how to do that yet.

They may not have been low in IQ, but they were low in whatever quality it is that makes a person try hard on an IQ test without any obvious incentive.

What is the incentive to try and fail, though? The measurement doesn’t take into account effort. Standardized testing and teaching emphasize performance on tests, which has uncertain future value. This is where having a strong community of adults as role models enters the picture. Children should have role models that provide that incentive, and help work with schools to improve this. When adult role models are not available we get into trouble, or rather the children do.

In 2008, a national organization called the Character Education Partnership published a paper that divided character education into two categories: programs that develop “moral character,” which embodies ethical values like fairness, generosity, and integrity; and those that address “performance character,” which includes values like effort, diligence, and perseverance.

This is an important effort that is often times ridiculed. Or derided because character is subjective. I have my own concerns here, because teaching moral character is a good way of propagating and continuing dangerous bias and racism. This isn’t a reason to not teach moral character in a society. It’s a reason to be very careful about what that means and how we wish to approach it. Most importantly, I believe we need to separate success from material gains.

we need to get away from positive fantasizing about how we’re all going to grow up to be rich and famous, and start thinking about the obstacles that now stand in the way of getting to where we want to be.”

If we know that happiness does not meaningfully improve at higher levels of wealth, but we do know that the happiest people on earth are monks, why do we not teach the practices that deliver happiness? I struggle with this question, because even as I practice meditation I am also arranging for significant wealth accumulation. I justify this by being balanced in my approach.

Paul talks next about rules, guidelines, and willpower. All of these are important when you think about success as a direction, and not a destination. If success is a destination, it is easy to treat our rules as disposable. Disposable rules are not powerful.

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.

It’s important to have principles to live by and the willpower to hold true to what we believe. Without those we live an unguided life, and then we teach children that having direction and guidance is less important than the immediate short-term benefits one can have with an extra dessert or frivolous spending.

We’re remarkably good at fooling ourselves into this.

It feels much better to find evidence that confirms what you believe to be true than to find evidence that falsifies what you believe to be true. Why go out in search of disappointment?

Confirmation bias lurks beneath the surface of being a good role model to children. Children learn from watching us, not from what we say. They occasionally listen to what we say. If we reject evidence that supports a balanced, guided life we give no children incentive to find that path for themselves.

Instead, we teach them to avoid short-term disappointment and replace it with short-term hollow enjoyment. This, I believe, is how we teach children to fail.

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