Is a child’s character the key to their success?

© Mary McIlvaine Photography

In his new book, How Children Succeed, journalist Paul Tough argues that it is.

Drawing on research from neuroscience, economics, and psychology, Tough makes the case that character traits such as grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism are more vital to success than IQ. What’s more, he suggests that these traits can be taught to children not only by their parents but by their teachers, coaches, and other mentors.

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To support his argument, Tough describes how the private Riverdale Country School and KIPP Public Charter School—two New York schools at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum—developed this new approach to character development and are now integrating into their school cultures. Working in collaboration with positive psychology experts Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson, the leaders of both schools created a list of character strengths they thought were crucial to academic success, including grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

Tough, a former editor at The New York Times Magazine and the author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America (2008), believes that students from schools like KIPP may have “character advantages” over their wealthier counterparts because of the hard work it takes for them to succeed. “When a Kipp student graduates from college,” writes Tough, “he will have not only a B.A. but also something more valuable: the knowledge that he climbed a mountain to get it.”

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Tough about his book and its implications for schools, teachers, and administrators. Below is a condensed version of our conversation.

Vicki Zakrzewski: How does your book fit into the ongoing controversy about teaching character education in U.S. public schools?

Paul Tough: I believe there’s this new generation of character education coming along that is different than the last generation. There is always an anxiety when people talk about character education in the public school context. We all think it’s good to teach values and ethics and morals, but we disagree about which values and morals to teach.

The tendency has been to bog down in fights between the Right and the Left, where conservatives were worried that character education programs were all about teaching mushy diversity and general sort of tolerance, and liberals were worried that character education was about teaching religion and more conservative values.

To me, what’s different about this new era in character education, in particular the experiment I wrote about that KIPP and Riverdale are doing in New York, is that it is pushing for what some people in character education call “performance character”—character strengths that are not necessarily about being a good person, but about living a good life, that are about making kids more effective in all kinds of ways. So I think part of the hope behind this new movement is it will be less controversial.

I’ve heard some interesting critiques from people who say that, especially for well-off kids, the last thing they need is more effectiveness lessons, and what they really need is better values and more integrity.  And I’m sympathetic to that argument. But I think there is something very effective about framing character as not about values—I’m not saying that values don’t matter—but instead that what schools are good at teaching, and what they’re designed to teach, is the skills kids need to do well in life. The premise behind this kind of character teaching is not that we should be teaching a whole different dimension of human existence, but that we’ve been leaving out some very important skills in terms of what makes kids happy and productive and fulfilled. And so we need to start teaching those.

VZ: Research has found that positive relationships are also a key to leading happy, productive, and fulfilling lives. However, cultivating these kinds of relationships results more from what you term in your book “moral character”—or things like fairness, integrity—rather than “performance character”—effort, diligence, and perseverance. Do you believe that schools also have a responsibility to teach students how to develop positive relationships? If so, how does that impact the teaching of performance character vs. moral character?

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, 231 pages

PT: That’s a great question. My sense is that these schools are going to continue to experiment with those things. I’ve talked to two Bay Area KIPP groups that are planning to introduce some version of the character report card—but, unlike the New York KIPP group that I wrote about, the Bay Area groups are going to include love in their list of character strengths, which Dave Levin, the co-founder of KIPP, said that he felt wasn’t quite right for a school to teach.

KIPP’s original list of seven strengths includes social intelligence, which is certainly a very different phrase than love. But I think there’s something valuable in a school context that the message for kids is not just, “You should be a nicer person,” but instead, “Having this kind of ability to get along with people is going to make your life better.” Potentially, it could help them think about the life they want to end up leading rather than feeling like, “My parents or my teachers want me to do this.”

VZ: What is one thing you would like teachers to take away from your book?

PT:  The idea that they can have an effect on their students in a broader way than I think they often believe they can. Their job doesn’t have to be just getting cognitive skills and information into these kids’ heads. The help they can give their students that will have as much of an effect, if not more, on how well they do is with developing their character, their non-cognitive skills.

I think teachers are in a system where that’s not valued—where all of their incentives are pushing them toward focusing on a certain range of skills with achievement tests. The more we tie merit pay to those scores, the less incentive we give teachers to push them in these other directions.

With that said, I do feel like most teachers instinctively know there’s more going on. I don’t think it’s a normal human response to go into a classroom and think what these kids need more than anything else is math. I think right now teachers don’t feel empowered to deal with these other issues, though. They see those problems as an obstacle that’s just a pain in the neck, that it makes their job harder, that they can’t really do anything about it. But I think the more we can give them the tools to think about this in another way and eventually to deal with it, they’re going to take that very naturally.

VZ: What would you like administrators to take away from your book?

PT: In lots of ways, I feel like the realm of discipline—which in lots of schools is a very large part of an administrator’s job—is an area that is very ripe for change. Those are the moments when kids are particularly susceptible to new interventions and new ways of thinking—they’re really character development moments.

That’s something that really struck me about what the dean of students at KIPP Infinity was talking about. He said it’s those moments where what you’re basically giving kids is cognitive behavioral therapy. You’re changing the way they think. That may be language that a lot of principals are uncomfortable with because they see their job more as a police officer or a judge or a prosecutor.

But I think to bring in some of that language of psychology and therapy—it doesn’t mean we put kids on the couch and make them talk about their parents, but we give them the tools to rethink the way they are behaving, not just in a “you’re good” or “you’re bad” way, but more a push toward a “character” kind of behavior. That, I think, can be really positive for any administrator.

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I’m not entirely convinced one can discount the effect of privilege and am uncomfortable with such individualistic essentialist ideas of the person. The interactive nature of teaching suggests A much more dynamic relationship is taking place to produce transformative effects. Carol Dweck’s work for example is more illustrative of how a teacher-pupil dynamic works to produce transformation in “character” (if you feel the need for that particular construct).

Rayya | 11:03 pm, September 26, 2012 | Link


I can’t see how any of the character traits highlighted
in this book, “grit, self-control, zest, social
intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity” could
be disputed by the right or the left. 

The focus of schools should be to teach kids skills
rather than values.

Kaylee's Education Studio | 12:29 pm, October 6, 2012 | Link


Hi Kaylee,
Thanks for your comment. Research has actually
shown that it is impossible for teachers not to
transmit values to students. For example, when a
student says something controversial, the rest of
the students will look at the teacher for his/her
reaction. The teacher’s reaction—spoken or not—
will communicate to the students the teacher’s
value-laden opinion. Another example: what the
teacher chooses to emphasize in the curriculum.
Imagine a history teacher who focuses on the
economic causes of the Civil War and barely
mentions slavery. Again—the teacher, whether
he/she is aware of it or not, is transmitting values
to the students.

So, while many people in this country believe that
it is not the school’s job to directly teach values,
e.g., honesty, integrity, kindness, teachers are
doing so anyway every minute they’re with the

Warm regards,

Vicki Zakrzewski | 9:19 am, October 8, 2012 | Link


I tend to agree with Paul on this one. Although IQ obviously has a role in whether a person CAN succeed or not, the other traits mentioned prove to be much more critical factors. Not every successful person is the ‘smartest’ person in the room, very often it is combination of curiosity, drive, intelligence, and even luck.

Kihei | 1:49 am, October 16, 2012 | Link

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