HOW CHILDREN SUCCEED, by Paul Tough
Reviewed by Judith Woods
DO we really need any more parenting books?
I only ask because nothing divides parents more rancorously than the common experience of child- rearing. The chasm between laissez-faire slackers and menacing Chinook hoverers has never been wider and the idea of hurling yet another prescriptive how-to handbook into the ideological abyss seems futile. But despite its populist title, How Children Succeed by the American journalist Paul Tough isn’t a manual, but a reflective examination of this highly polarised status quo, ballasted by science and case studies that reveal high IQ alone is no guarantee of success.
Emotional intelligence, motivation and persistence – character traits seldom calibrated – are more reliable indicators of whether a child, from any background, will do well in life.
The bright eldest child may find exams easy, but social interaction difficult. Their middle-of-the-road charmer may only scrape a C in maths, but that absence of academic flair is eclipsed by their ability to gain friends and influence people. All the same, Tough sets out the evidence convincingly as he describes how under-parenting leaves children doomed to fail; without the confidence to recognise opportunity or the self esteem to seize it, they are destined for mediocrity.
Conversely, over-parenting – where academic achievements are elevated above emotional needs – creates a disproportionate reliance on external affirmation, so the child doesn’t possess the internal resources to overcome unexpected challenges and is liable to crumple at the first obstacle.
How Children Succeed has already caused a commotion in America, and made it to the New York Times bestseller list. Here in Britain, however, Tough’s central tenet appears less radical; the public school system is founded on the importance of character, so much so that rounded individuals are fast becoming a key national export, as foreign students flock here and schools open satellite campuses overseas.
But there is much in this immensely readable book to engage and fascinate. The science is served up in digestible chunks and I found myself fascinated by the Canadian research into the connection between a mother rat’s licking-and-grooming habits and the future success of her offspring. Those mothers who scored highly for attentiveness reared young that were bolder, more curious and more dominant. Using gene-sequencing technology, researchers established that the precise segment of the pup’s DNA "switched on” by the act of grooming was the part that controlled the future function of the hippocampus, which processes stress hormones.
Subsequent litters were then swapped at birth; rat pups born to inattentive mothers were given to attentive mothers.
Even though the replacement young were not biologically related to the grooming mothers, they thrived. The other pups, who were licked less, did not display the same levels of "successful” traits.
If that isn’t a clarion call for social services to whisk babies out of the care system and into the arms of adoptive parents, I’m not sure what is. It’s a reminder that the most powerful connection between a parent and a young child is a physical one.
– The Daily Telegraph