Q&A with Paul Tough
Paul Tough Q. What made you want to write How Children Succeed?
A. In 2008, I published my first book, Whatever It Takes, about
Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. I spent five
years reporting that book, but when I finished it, I realized I
still had a lot of questions about what really happens in
childhood. How Children Succeed is an attempt to answer those
questions, which for many of us are big and mysterious and
central in our lives: Why do certain children succeed while other
children fail? Why is it, exactly, that poor children are less
likely to succeed, on average, than middle-class children? And
most important, what can we all do to steer more kids toward
Q. Where did you go to find the answers?
A. My reporting for this book took me all over the country, from
a pediatric clinic in a low-income San Francisco neighborhood to
a chess tournament in central Ohio to a wealthy private school in
New York City. And what I found as I reported was that there is a
new and groundbreaking conversation going on, out of the public
eye, about childhood and success and failure. It is very
different than the traditional education debate. There are
economists working on this, neuroscientists, psychologists,
medical doctors. They are often working independently from one
another. They don’t always coordinate their efforts. But they’re
beginning to find some common ground, and together they’re
reaching some interesting and important conclusions.
Q. A lot of your reporting for this book was in low-income
neighborhoods. Overall, what did you learn about kids growing up
A. A lot of what we think we know about the effect of poverty on
a child’s development is just plain wrong. It’s certainly
indisputable that growing up in poverty is really hard on
children. But the conventional wisdom is that the big problem for
low-income kids is that they don’t get enough cognitive
stimulation early on. In fact, what seems to have more of an
effect is the chaotic environments that many low-income kids grow
up in and the often stressful relationships they have with the
adults around them. That makes a huge difference in how
children’s brains develop, and scientists are now able to trace a
direct route from those early negative experiences to later
problems in school, health, and behavior.
The problem is that science isn’t yet reflected in the way we
run our schools and operate our social safety net. And that’s a
big part of why so many low-income kids don’t do well in school.
We now know better than ever what kind of help they need to
succeed in school. But very few schools are equipped to deliver
Q. Many readers were first exposed to your reporting on
character through your article in the New York Times Magazine in
September 2011, which was titled "What If the Secret to Success
Is Failure?" How does failure help us succeed?
A. That’s an idea that I think was best expressed by Dominic
Randolph, the head of the Riverdale Country School, an exclusive
private school in the Bronx where they’re now doing some
interesting experiments with teaching character. Here’s how he
put it: "The idea of building grit and building self-control is
that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic
environments in the United States, no one fails anything."
That idea resonated with a lot of readers. I don’t think it’s
quite true that failure itself helps us succeed. In fact,
repeated failures can be quite devastating to a child’s
development. What I think is important on the road to success is
learning to deal with failure, to manage adversity. That’s a
skill that parents can certainly help their children develop--but
so can teachers and coaches and mentors and neighbors and lots of
Q. How did writing this book affect you as a parent?
A. My wife and I became parents for the first time just as I
started reporting this book, and our son Ellington is now three.
Those are crucial years in a child’s development, and I spent a
lot of them reading papers on the infant brain and studies on
attachment and trauma and stress hormones, trying not to get too
In the end, though, this research had a surprising effect: it
made me more relaxed as a parent. When Ellington was born, I was
very much caught up in the idea of childhood as a race--the
faster a child develops skills, the better he does on tests, the
better he’ll do in life. Having done this reporting, I’m less
concerned about my son’s reading and counting ability. Don’t get
me wrong, I still want him to know that stuff. But I think he’ll
get there in time. What I’m more concerned about is his
character--or whatever the right synonym is for character when
you’re talking about a three-year-old. I want him to be able to
get over disappointments, to calm himself down, to keep working
at a puzzle even when it’s frustrating, to be good at sharing, to
feel loved and confident and full of a sense of belonging. Most
important, I want him to be able to deal with failure.
That’s a difficult thing for parents to give their children,
since we have deep in our DNA the urge to shield our kids from
every kind of trouble. But what we’re finding out now is that in
trying to protect our children, we may actually be harming them.
By not giving them the chance to learn to manage adversity, to
cope with failure, we produce kids who have real problems when
they grow up. Overcoming adversity is what produces character.
And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and