How Children Succeed by Paul Tough is a very interesting book on the discovery of what are the ‘things’ that makes successful children ‘successful’. The book is written into 5 main chapters. However, reading the 5 chapters can be a slight challenge into one’s ‘mind-map’ of the book. It is not written in a linear way. It somewhat feel this is a book of a story within another story, albeit various of them weaved together, highlighted from time to time by Tough in his writing and referencing. This is understandable, given the subject matter the author was trying to deal with in the book. But I do find myself at times, lost in my ‘grasp’ and having to flipped to the earlier discussion in the book to keep track with the information shared by the author. In trying to tell a story of what are the links between childhood stress and children’s backgrounds early in life with future success, Tough kept introducing to the readers the experiences of educators and researchers in various forms of projects, researches, (albeit relevant) and the children they helped, including sometimes his own experience in these projects and researches. Keeping up with all these information can be slightly overwhelming.
In an overview, the book is written on the premise that “Character Strength” is the key to how children succeed in life. A child with ‘character’, who most likely will lead a more fulfilling life, is said to posses the qualities of ‘perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self control’.
However, the author clearly emphasized that several studies have proven, (and I quote): ‘that character strengths are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which the children grow up.’
Tough therefore, stressed that the society as a whole can do a lot more to influence the development in children. Parents are an excellent vehicle for the kind of interventions that will help the children develop those strengths and skills, starting at birth and going all the way through college. But they are not the only one that could do so. As touch further emphasized: ‘Transformative help (should/could) also comes regularly from social workers, teachers, clergy members, pediatricians, and neighbors.’ And this ‘help’ is especially true, and needed when it comes to children who came from the least privileged and problematic (abuse, neglect) backgrounds.
So we’re not born with all those qualities which stood for ‘character strength’. What then?How do we ‘instill’ them in our children? Or in certain circumstances how do we avoid them from not being ‘instill’ in our children? Several points presented by the author therefore, is of utmost importance to be considered:
1) Stress affect our brain chemistry and its reaction to it – (What to avoid)
Parents and caregivers must understand how stress affect our brain chemistry and its reaction to it, especially in children. As Tough points out: ‘The part of the brain most affected by early stress (in a child’s life) is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grew up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school.’ The author further emphasized that research has proven that ‘early stress and adversity can literally get under a child’s skin, where it can cause damage that lasts a lifetime.’
However, there is an effective antidote to the negative effect of stress on children, (which has also been proven by research) that is – having a caring and nurturing parents (or caregivers). Tough stressed that research done by neuroscientist Michael Meaney has shown that ‘The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, but also biochemical.’
2) Parent’s and Caregivers’ Attachment has an important role in building ‘character’ – (What to do)
Research quoted in the book also suggests that ‘regular good parenting can make a profound difference for a child’s future prospects’. In a study by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, it was shown that ‘babies whose parents responded readily and fully to their cries in the first month of their life were, at one year, more independent and intrepid than babies whose parents had ignored their cries. In preschool, the pattern continues – the children whose parents had responded most sensitively to their emotional needs as infants were the most self-reliant’. Bowlby & Ainsworth’s study contended that ‘warm, sensitive parental care, created a “secure base” from which a child could explore the world.’ This contention was also later proven by another research by Alan Scroufe and Byron Egeland, who did a long term study low income mothers and their children in Minneapolis.
If we were to relate the importance of caring and nurturing parents in children’s overcoming/managing stress, all these studies, according to Tough show that ‘the early nurturing attention from (their) mothers had fostered in them (the children) a resilience that acted as a protective buffers against stress’. These children, when encountering the challenges in life, were able to ‘assert themselves, draw on reserves of self-confidence, and make their way forward’.
But how about those children coming from the least privileged and problematic (abuse, violence, neglect) backgrounds? What chance do they have at being successful when many of their parents have difficulty to form a secure attachment with their children, especially when they themselves were raised by an insecure parents once, trapped in such a vicious cycle of life?
In answering this, Tough quoted the views of Alicia Lieberman, who runs a Child Trauma Research Program in San Francisco, ‘the fact is that parents can overcome histories of trauma and poor attachment; they can change their approach to their children from one that produces anxious attachment to one that promotes secure attachment and healthy functioning. Some parents can accomplish this transformation on their own, but most need help.’
These two points are some of the gist of the book’s discussion. There are a whole lot more that you may find interesting and intriguing. One of them is an assertion by Martin Seligman, highlighted by the author, that ‘the most fruitful time to transform pessimistic children into optimistic ones was “before puberty but late enough in childhood so that they are meta-cognitive (capable of thinking about thinking).” ‘ So if you are a parent you might want to consider that, every time you plan on ‘nagging’ you child 🙂
This book is published by Random House Book, 2013. You can get it online from MPH (if in Malaysia) with a starting price of RM54.