Writer Paul Tough

Tough challenges the belief that intelligence is the sole indicator of value in the education system.

In his provocative new book, How Children Succeed, writer and broadcaster Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter most in the success of children have more to do with character than intelligence. Tough is also the author of Whatever It Takes about the Harlem Children's Zone project. The Toronto-born journalist has written extensively on education, child development, poverty and politics and has worked as an editor at The New York Times Magazine and Harper's and as a reporter-producer for the public radio program, This American Life. He was also the founding editor of the online magazine, Open Letters.


Tavis: Paul Tough is a contributor for “The New York Times” magazine and “Harper’s,” who has penned one of the most-talked-about books on education of the year. It’s called “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” Paul, good to have you back on this program.

Paul Tough: Thank you.

Tavis: Congrats on the success of the text.

Tough: Thank you.

Tavis: Having said that, can I pick apart the title?

Tough: Yes, please do.

Tavis: Let’s pick it apart. I want to get started here. “How Children Succeed.” I get it. “Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” It seems to me that the way kids learn grit is to be encouraged to try and to fail. To quote Samuel Beckett, “Try again, fail again, fail better.” “Try again, fail again, fail better.” It’s a wonderful quote from Beckett, but parents don’t want their kids to fail, particularly because every grade point matters when you’re trying to get into these competitive schools.

So how do you learn grit if we live in a world, in a society, at least, where nobody encourages you to try and to fail?

Tough: I think it’s very difficult, and I think that means that we need to change things in lots of different venues at once. We need to change the way we’re doing school, but we also need to start that change at home.

I think that the message to parents is that if we don’t give them the opportunity to fail when they’re growing up, and to fail productively, to fail creatively, that they’re going to get out there into the world and they’re going to hit some kind of setback, like everybody does, and they’re going to get completely derailed.

I think that’s the problem that so many kids are having, sometimes in college, sometimes even beyond college. If they haven’t had that opportunity, if they’ve been so protected from failure in childhood, they get out into the world and they really get thrown off.

Tavis: Curiosity – so you got grit and curiosity next. This is not rocket science to me. I’ve said many ties that what some kids lack and other kids have access to is exposure – let me be frank. The kids of the white elite have access to exposure.

It’s like Kodak film, the old Kodak film. I say all the time, kids are like Kodak film. All they need is a little exposure. Once they get exposed, the picture comes into view for them.

So so much of curiosity has to do with living in an environment, living in a world where you get exposed, and your curiosity grows, and you can channel that sort of curiosity. So again, it’s not rocket science to me. The kids who succeed are in part curious because that curiosity is encouraged.

Tough: I take your point, definitely, but I do think that it goes beyond simple economics when we’re talking about curiosity. I think that kids can be curious with a couple of blocks. You don’t need complicated toys in order to be curious, and in fact, you could argue that those toys make kids less curious.

To me, it’s much more about the environment in the home, the environment in the classroom. I think there are lots of parents at all levels of the income spectrum who are encouraging their kids to just ask questions, to try new things. I think that’s what builds up curiosity more than anything else.

Tavis: Yeah. No matter how curious I might be, if my surroundings and my situation economically mean that I never get outside of these three or four blocks, how does my curiosity get addressed?

Tough: Absolutely. I think there’s no question that there are different opportunities that kids are getting when they come from different economic backgrounds. To me, curiosity is one that transcends that more. But I absolutely take your point that kids are certainly experiencing different types of opportunities, depending on what kind of background they’re coming from.

Tavis: This last part of the subtitle, “The Hidden Power of Character,” since when has the power of character been hidden? How long have we known that character matters? When you say the hidden power of character, who says it’s latent? Where is it hidden?

Tough: Well, I think often the importance of it is hidden, I think, in our school systems these days. Certainly the idea of character in education is nothing new. One way to look at the history of the last hundred years or so of American education is that it’s this pendulum swing back and forth from us emphasizing character to emphasizing IQ and cognitive skills.

But what I think has happened in the last 10, 15, 20 years is that that pendulum has swung about as far as it can toward the cognitive side of the equation, toward just focusing on IQ, and I think that has to do with federal policies, but I think it has to do with a bigger culture shift and this obsession that a lot of parents have now with getting their kids into the right preschool as early as possible, focused on those tests above all else.

Tavis: If character matters, and you and I both believe that it does, why have we had such a devil of a time in this country getting a values education curriculum in our schools? Thomas Lacona wrote about this many, many years ago, as you know. He was ahead of the curve on this. But why such a difficult, uphill battle to get a values education curriculum in our schools?

Tough: Well, I’d say a couple of things. One is I went back and looked at I think there was another era where people were really talking about character education a lot in the 1990s, and in lots of ways there are, it really did spread. There are character education programs in lots of schools.

The problem is a lot of them aren’t effective, and I think that was because the conversation got very politicized in the ’90s, that people on the left thought that character education was indoctrinating kids with conservative ideas, and the same on the other side of the equation.

I think what that meant was that everything got watered down, and so a lot of the character education programs you see now in schools are just sort of a value of the weak. It gets talked about a little bit, but it doesn’t really hit home.

So what’s interesting to me about some of these new experiments, and they are just experiments, I think, with character education that are coming along now, partly they’re talking about character in a somewhat different way. They’re talking about it in what some people call performance character.

Things like grit, perseverance, conscientiousness, optimism, these different skills that help kids succeed. So the hope is that that will allow us to do sort of an end run around some of those political arguments that I think have derailed character education in the past.

Tavis: What I’m about to say I say with the greatest level of respect.

Tough: Please.

Tavis: I’m just playing devil’s advocate here. So maybe this is a waste of good trees, because maybe all you had to do was to call your book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” and open it up to the first page and just simply say, “God bless the child that’s got his own.”

Put another way, poverty. If you are in an impoverished environment, yes, there are always examples of those – I’m one of them – who come out of these impoverished environments and they end up being successful or being blessed in their personal and professional endeavors.

But the chances of doing that are, the obstacles are far greater when you come out of that. It’s a long way of asking, a long way of saying how much does poverty really matter?

Tough: It matters a lot, absolutely. What I think – well, I think – I’ve been writing about poverty now for almost a decade, and I think when you do the kind of reporting that I do or when you read books like this, you do hear those success stories every once in a while, but they do feel, I think, kind of rare and somewhat random.

What I think is interesting to me about the science that is now emerging from psychology, from neuroscience, from economics, is that it’s giving us for the first time I think a better way of understanding exactly what poverty does to kids.

We’ve always known that it’s very hard, poverty’s very hard on kids in lots of ways, but I think were understanding better than ever why that is, and I think it’s giving us a way to look at those success stories more scientifically, to really say what kind of interventions do kids really need to succeed.

Some of the interventions that I’m writing about in the book I think are moving toward a place where we can have those kind of success stories, be more reliable, more repeatable, work for millions of kids rather than a few lucky ones.

Tavis: I’m going to ask you in just a moment to tell me more about the science, because again, at the heart of this book is some great science, and I want to give you the opportunity that you need to kind of open up on that.

Tough: Sure.

Tavis: But why does it take science? You know my work on this issue, of course –

Tough: Of course.

Tavis: – on the poverty issue, and it just troubles me that people have to have, with all respect to your work and I’m glad you did it, so it’s not casting aspersion on you –

Tough: Absolutely.

Tavis: But that people have to have a book laying out the science of what poverty does to kids for them to understand that that suffering is real, and that as a society we ought to take that suffering seriously, and that poverty matters. Why does it take somebody having to do this much research to present a white paper with scientific data to convince them that hey, we ought to do something about this?

Tough: Well, here’s what I think. Again, I take your point, but I think that there’s a way – I think we all know the big picture, right? We all know, when we care to look at it or think about it, we all know that poverty is really hard on kids, that it’s a problem, that we need to solve it.

But I think that because we don’t know exactly what’s going on, exactly why kids who are growing up in poverty tend to succeed so much less, we all can kind of give our own explanations for that. So sometimes some people will say it’s culture, some will say it’s genes, some will say it’s the economic. Some will say it’s neighborhood conditions, the family, the schools.

All of these things may play some kind of role, but I think that when we don’t look at it scientifically we can tend to sort of sentimentalize it and we can just end up having whatever – just confirming our own biases about what’s really going on in the homes of poor people.

So I think when we have conversations about poverty in this country, we’re often talking past each other. Certainly when I listen to talk radio, it just feels like people calling in and just saying the same talking points about either people are being oppressed or people are being lazy that we’ve heard for a long time.

So I want to change that conversation, and to me, that’s why the science is important. Not because it should make people care about poverty, but because it should push them from that caring, I hope toward solutions.

Tavis: Okay. So what’s the science telling us about what poverty does to our kids vis-à-vis education and how they learn?

Tough: Well I think to me the science that had the biggest impact on me that I wrote about here was about the biology of stress, about the way that when kids grow up around what doctors call toxic stress, stress that is chronic and intense, it affects them, it gets under the skin, it lasts a lifetime. It affects their physical health, their mental health, and it affects the kind of skills, the attention and concentration skills that matter so much at school.

The other side of research that I think is important in that realm is also about connections with parents. That when kids are able to form close, attached bonds with a parent or another caregiver, they’re somewhat protected from that toxic stress, and I think often, when you find kids who are able to make that jump out of poverty, there’s that one person that they connected to, whether a parent or somebody else, that was able to help them.

All that plays out in school. I think especially when you have schools in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, where there are lots of kids coming from those sorts of stressful backgrounds, that means there’s going to be more conflict, there’s going to be more – it’s just going to amp up the stress, I think, in lots of ways, in some of these schools.

Tavis: So what’s the science telling you, what’s the data saying to you or to us about how, to the extent that we can, reverse the impacts of that kind of poverty, those kinds of toxic situations? There’s no magic wand to magically lift these kids out of these environments.

Tough: Exactly.

Tavis: But is there something that could be done over time to reverse the impact of what they are exposed to and the after-experience?

Tough: Yeah, so I’d say there are two sets of interventions that I think are most promising, to me. One is interventions that actually try to help families, help support families, especially in the first few years of a child’s life, when we know their brains are so plastic, so malleable, so much important development is going on.

There are some really remarkable interventions. They’re still pretty early, pretty experimental, that are working directly with parents, giving them not just material support but also emotional support, psychological support, and that, in turn, often makes for a closer relationship, a closer connection, between that parent and child.

When parents, even parents who are really troubled, when they can get that sort of support, it can completely transform their relationship with their kids, and that can have a huge effect, I think, on how those kids do going forward.

The second set of interventions that I think are most promising are in adolescence. I think that’s a period where, again, where kids, I think, are able to re-think things, where they’re able to get a little deeper about their own patterns, about their own habits.

It’s also a time where kids are making crucial decisions for the first time. The decisions we make between six and 10 don’t necessarily change our lives. The decisions we make between 16 and 20 absolutely can, both in a negative way, but also in a positive way. This is when kids can turn themselves around and get to college and stick with college.

So when interventions work, especially in this character realm, in this non-cognitive realm, mentoring, just encouraging kids, connecting with them, things that sort of resemble group therapy sometimes, though it often happens in the classroom or in a mentoring program, kids can really make dramatic changes.

I was really struck by the adolescents who I reported on who went from just being so completely off-track to with the kind of connection and support that comes from a mentor, a teacher, a relative, are able to get so firmly back on track at that period.

Tavis: As you well know, having done this for quite some time, no matter how much data is put in front of some people, no matter how much energy and effort Paul Tough puts into writing a book that gives us the science of what poverty does to some people, there are certain refrains that you are going to hear in response to what you have done.

Let me offer two or three of them and get your take on it. In no particular order, so with all due respect to what Paul Tough has written here, this is fundamentally, in some people’s minds, exclusively about parenting.

Tough: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: If you don’t want to deal with these issues, have a two-parent family and everything is solved. So to those who say this is all about parenting, you say what?

Tough: I say the parents matter a whole lot. I don’t think two-parent versus one-parent is the real issue, though I think it’s easier to give kids the right kind of support if you are in a two-parent home. But we all know there are lots of single-parent families, including mine, where kids are able to succeed.

So I think a couple things. One is, though, I think that that doesn’t take us to, it shouldn’t take us to a point where we just wash our hands of the problem and say it’s entirely up to parents.

We have this division in how we think about our interaction between government and families, or the public and families, that our responsibility for kids starts on the first day of kindergarten, and nothing that happens before that or outside the walls of the school is public responsibility.

It’s a complicated line to cross, because we don’t want the government to tell parents how to parent. But I think that the interventions that to me seem to be working best are crossing that line, are finding ways to work directly with parents, to support them. I think that’s something that a lot of us first are scared of or made uncomfortable by, sometimes for good reasons.

But I think it also just lets us off the hook. It lets us say okay, if the parents aren’t doing their job, there’s nothing we can do. In fact, the opposite is true. There’s a whole lot that we can do to support parents, to help them do a better job.

Tavis: To those who say that children succeed the same way adults succeed, hard work, and that your conditions be damned, if you want to be successful in this country you’ve got to work hard. There are all kinds of policymakers, influencers, thought leaders, opinion-makers, who say, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.” You know where I’m going with this.

Tough: Yup.

Tavis: So it’s ultimately about hard work.

Tough: I think it is about hard work. I think when I spent a lot of time for this book reporting on the South Side of Chicago in very high poverty neighborhoods, a lot of disadvantage for kids. Those kids who were – a lot of them were enrolled in these programs that were trying to get them not just to college but through college, they were working harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. They were certainly working a lot harder than I was when I was a teenager.

So I think they get that message. Those kids absolutely understand, especially if they’re at that stage in their education, where they’re behind other kids, that they have to work tremendously hard. I think when kids who grow up in poverty see that there’s a point to working hard, see that actually they can accomplish something, they can change their circumstances, they work immensely hard.

So I think that message is true no matter who you are. That’s definitely the message that I say to my son, but I think it’s the message that lots of parents are saying to their kids, and lots of schools are saying to the kids as well.

Tavis: What about the notion, Paul, that with all due respect to the persons who work on these issues every day and the folk like yourself who write best-selling texts about these issues, that we just fundamentally live in a nation where children are talking points? They’re talking points.

But that they really don’t matter. They don’t fund campaigns, they don’t vote, so often because they’re children they don’t have a say-so about their future. It’s the argument that Marian Wright Edelman makes all the time at the Children’s Defense Fund, that there just aren’t enough of us speaking, fighting, defending them, so they end up just – their suffering just ends up being rendered invisible?

Tough: I absolutely have my days, both reporting and writing and talking about this stuff, where I feel very pessimistic, where I feel like the conditions that a lot of the kids I’m writing about are living in are terrible, and the idea that we can put up with that and then we’ve been putting up with it or ignoring it for decades, for generations, is a true shame.

It really is a national travesty. But at the same time, I do feel like there is this real American idea that we want kids to have opportunities to succeed, and my sense of what is holding us back from engaging in this conversation in a more productive way is not that people don’t care and people don’t want to help improve things.

I think it makes us uncomfortable. I think we often feel ashamed of the situation, so if we can have an excuse to turn our backs on it, I think we’ll take it. But I think we also don’t see solutions. We don’t see that there are interventions; there are things we can do to help kids, to help them succeed.

My sense is that when we see those paths, when people see that helping kids, helping families in this particular way is going to lead to the kind of success that we want for all kids, I think people embrace that.

Tavis: I think the best part about this book, to your point now, the best part about this book is that you offer so many examples of individuals and even institutions who are doing the kid of work to help these children succeed. So that excuse doesn’t exist anymore.

Tough: Right.

Tavis: There are examples of people who are doing that.

Tough: Yeah, I agree, and I think they’re all over the place. There’s some in schools, pediatricians, psychologists, lots of people I think who are working in lots of different ways. The evidence is really clear that when kids, wherever they’re from, when kids get the kind of help they need, they succeed.

Tavis: I know you don’t have a scientific answer to this; then again, given that you’re Paul Tough, maybe you do. What do you know, or what do you believe, at least, about the success of this book? Who’s buying this?

I’m asking that because I think it’s always an encouraging sign, whether you’re talking about “The New Jim Crow” by Michele Alexander, 40-plus weeks on the best seller list about the prison industrial complex. It’s something I talk about from time to time and have worked on over the years of my career, and it’s nice to see a book for 40 weeks on the best seller list about the prison industrial complex that nobody talks about.

So you put a book out about “How Children Succeed,” and you’re talking about poverty and the scientific impacts it has on kids, it goes on the list and it stays on the list, it’s still on the list. That’s something at least to revel in and to smile about. But what does that say to you?

Tough: A lot.

Tavis: What does that say to you?

Tough: It says to me that people are really interested in these questions, and I do think a lot of the people who are interested in this book are people who are teachers, who are parents, who are professionals who are working in these fields in one form or another.

But I think there’s a way that these ideas – people are curious about them. I think there’s a couple of levels to it. One is I think people are curious about what’s really going on. Why is this such a hard problem to solve?

Then I think they feel emotionally about it. I tend to think that most Americans do feel shame about the depths of poverty in this country, and I think they are looking for answers. I think that when it seems like there is – someone comes along with a book like this or like “The New Jim Crow,” that is coming up with some new ideas, some new research saying this is what’s going on in these communities, in these homes, in our country as a whole, I think that people are eager to learn about that.

Tavis: If we’re that ashamed and the issue is that hard to wrap our brains around, can I take from that that this issue is an intractable problem?

Tough: I hope not. I hope not. Like I said, I have my pessimistic days and I have my optimistic days. But to come down more on the optimistic side, I think the science and the research and the reporting that I’ve done suggests that for individual kids, for individual schools, it’s not at all intractable.

There are lots of solutions out there, there are lots of success stories, and I think if we can expand from that, extrapolate from that, find systems that will work for kids in a big way, we can absolutely change outcomes for millions of kids.

Tavis: In terms of agency, in terms of an action plan, what, to your mind, to your spirit, would make you most happy about what people do once they read the text?

Tough: It’s a good question. I think there are lots of ways that we can all help. I think we can support organizations that are working with kids to improve their opportunities. I think we can work directly with kids, because one of the things that’s clear is that those one-on-one connections make a big difference.

I think we can also talk to our leaders. I think policy changes are a big part of this, and I think the conversation is not happening in Washington to the degree that I think it should be happening and can be happening. I think that’s probably because we’re not yelling at our leaders enough. We’re not telling them that these things are important to us, that we want to find some new solutions.

Tavis: Without question the most talked-about book this year about education. The book is called “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” written by Paul Tough. Paul, good to have you on the program, and thanks for your work.

Tough: Thanks.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

ank you.

Last modified: November 27, 2012 at 12:53 pm