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January 08, 2013

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

by Paul Tough


Over the holiday break I finished Paul Tough's How Children Succeed; much of it was familiar from a New York Times Magazine article that was the genesis of the book, published a couple of years ago. This has been perhaps the weakest of the Notable books thus far, largely because I was already familiar with a substantial amount of the book from the article -- it doesn't go much deeper than the piece that originated it¹.

The book is a good survey of the current neuroscience which contributes to kids' ability to learn and deal with other developmental challenges, and its inclusion of "curiosity" in the subtitle is absolutely misleading, as it doesn't appear in the book at all that I can recall². That's kind of a shame, because as a parent, I'd really like to know what to do to inspire curiosity in my own kids.

And that brings me to the greatest failing of the book, which is its lack of prescription, other than for the very young. Much of what allows children to succeed is established at a very early age due to what neuroscientists call the "hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal" (HPA) axis, which is reinforced by responsible parenting at a very young age, particularly pre-kindergarten. This is a good prescription for where to spend educational money, though, as a matter of public policy: very early education is extremely important to the development of character, perhaps unsurprisingly, and supporting parents before children get to school age also seems vital.

The contents of one chapter weren't remarked on in the original article at all, and that's a chapter called "How to Think," about chess education in middle school; it's a chapter rich with anecdotes and people with whom I identified. As a former chess player who was pretty decent in high school, though nowhere near as good as the kids in the chapter, I felt the familiar draw of chess anew, which is described as a feeling of being productive. And this may be where this book intersects with video games a bit; chess is one of those pursuits where there's no obvious and clear benefit, especially from the perspective of non-players. But here's a great quote:

[...]Rowson went on to defend himself and his fellow chess players, and he did so on essentially aesthetic grounds: "Chess is a creative and beautiful pursuit, which allows us to experience a wide range of uniquely human characteristics," he wrote. The game "is a celebration of existential freedom, in the sense that we are blessed with the opportunity to create ourselves through our actions. In choosing to play chess, we are celebrating freedom above utility." In Rowson's eyes, two chess players facing off across a board were making a unique, collaborative work of art, and the better they played, the more beautiful the result.

I've seen that beauty at many points in my career, from watching competitive Quake matches to my own personal experiences, those moments where you see someone elevated above all the rest, or when you enter those moments of pure flow. I saw it recently while loved ones played Spaceteam together over the break, that collaborative energy that created two or more cooperative souls, if only for a little while, getting in sync, each strengthening their mental model of the other person. It's a beautiful thing.

Previous "Notable": The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
Next "Notable": Fobbit by David Abrams
Intro post to my Notable project

¹It's not a terribly long book, and so I'd probably recommend it to people who haven't read the article. The article is probably online somewhere in the NYT archive, though, so you might be better off with that.
²Checking the index again, I find about twenty references to character in different forms and subheadings, and grit in about eight -- curiosity doesn't even make a single appearance in the index and I really don't remember anything about it from the text.

Posted by Brett Douville at January 8, 2013 08:49 AM

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