Being the mother of a toddler, I talk to a lot of parents: at play groups, during Parents as Teachers functions and on Facebook. After many of these encounters, I've found myself questioning the way my husband and I choose to raise our daughter.
She's not in preschool — yet. We don't use flashcards or 'Baby Einstein' videos, although we do let her watch Disney Junior and PBS. We read, play, nap, sing and go out a lot. She somehow knows her colors, numbers and most letters — although we haven't drilled her.
I've felt guilty — worried she would be left behind when with other children her age, even though she seems bright to me.
So when I started reading Paul Tough's new book, "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character," I felt relieved from the first sentence.
According to Tough, who researched and wrote his book for about three years by studying educational programs across the country, academics in the early years are not what actually matters the most for children's ultimate success.
Character, problem solving, grit, perseverance and the ability to manage stress turns out to be much more important.
Maybe the reassurance Tough provides is why I found this book fascinating and one that I would recommend to parents and educators; but truly, this is a well-written, well-researched and well-supported work.
Tough knows how to get his point across and what busy and tired people like to read: true stories about people who have succeeded in the worst of situations. You won't find pages upon pages of theory or how-to in this book. You'll find case studies, such as: KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) in the Bronx; a diverse chess team from Brooklyn; and Jeff Nelson, who was part of Teach of America in Chicago. These real-life examples prove theories and inspire educators at the same time.
Tough also discusses his own family — when he started researching "How Children Succeed," he and his wife had just welcomed their little boy to the world. When the book was published, his son was 3. Tough said writing this book actually relaxed him as a parent and made him focus on helping his son to problem-solve and deal with "failure." And it allowed him to give plenty of hugs and love.
Tough also uses Steve Jobs as an example of learning from failure. He states that one problem with many children in middle- to high-income families is that they never really experience failure. Life is easy for them: They haven't developed any grit. When Jobs was fired from Apple, he didn't give up, as you know; he came back bigger and better than ever — learning from failure.
Tough is not proposing setting up our children for failure or encouraging them to fail so they can eventually succeed. But he's basically stating that we should teach children how to deal with failure if it does occur, how to overcome it and not let it destroy hopes and dreams.
Much of the book does focus on the achievement gap between students from low-income homes and students from the middle to upper class. Even through these examples, Tough stresses character above academic opportunities: "(Science) says that the character strengths that matter so much to young people's success are not innate; they don't appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes."
He goes on to state that this means society as a whole can help all children succeed, not just parents, because we are learning about interventions that actually help: "Transformative help comes regularly from social workers, teachers, clergy members, pediatricians, and neighbors ... what we can't argue anymore is that there's nothing we can do."
If you work with children in any way, from parenting to teaching to volunteering, "How Children Succeed" is worth your time to read, discuss and implement.
Margo L. Dill is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for "WOW! Women On Writing" e-zine and her blog, "Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them" (http://margodill.com/blog/ ). She lives in St. Louis with her family.