Paul Tough: Affluent Parents Emphasize Wrong Set of Skills

Think signing your kid up for an ACT-prep course or hiring a math tutor is going to help your child succeed in life?


If you read author Paul Tough’s new book, you may wonder if you’re wasting your kid’s time and your money.

In his book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” Tough argues that parents in affluent communities overemphasize their children’s intellectual development when what ultimately decides success are character traits like perseverance and self control.

“There’s compelling evidence that non-cognitive skills are a better predictor of success,” Tough says. During our phone interview, he cited work by University of Chicago professor James Heckman, winner of 2000 Nobel Prize in Economics, who compared students who had graduated high school with those who took the GED test to earn a diploma. He found that those who struggled and persevered through high school did far better in annual income, marriage rates and other measures of success than students who took the GED—an obvious short cut—although both groups were just as smart.

Tough argues that motivation, determination and curiosity count for more in this world than sheer intellectual power. And he thinks in areas like the North Shore, many kids aren’t developing these character traits because parents and educators make life too easy for them.

“Culture and school protect them from real challenge,” Tough says. And he notes that character is developed from “a certain amount of adversity, not overwhelming, but some.” While researching the book, Tough spent time at Riverdale Country School in New York—a very affluent private school—and at Kipp Academy, whose students were on the other end of the economic spectrum. So he’s quick to point out that too much adversity is as bad as too little.

As we talked, I argued that teenagers in competitive high schools face lots of challenge as they navigate enriched academic and athletic arenas—not to mention negotiating the social scene.

He disagreed, saying that a ton of homework isn’t real challenge, and that stress and pressure are easy to confuse with challenge.

In his own life, he mentioned two things that built character. First, working as a dishwasher, which he called “very impactful.” And also, a cross-country bike trip—pre-cell phone and pre-GPS—from Atlanta, Ga., to Halifax, in Nova Scotia, Canada, After attending a competitive high school, he got to college and found it was just more of the same. So he dropped out, twice. His experiences on the road have clearly influenced his quest to find out what influences life-long success.

So what’s the parent of an overscheduled, hard-working North Shore teen to do? “Affluent parents need to do less,” he says. “Kids need the challenge of figuring out things for themselves.” And yes, they may fail occasionally, but they will develop the skills necessary to succeed.

It’s important to note, Tough hasn’t parented a teen just yet. As the parent of a 3-year-old, he admits even he isn’t sure he would say yes to a solo bike trip if asked one day.

So what do you think? We’re interested in what parents of North Shore teens think about allowing some of the natural disappointments and consequences of life teach our kids about resilience and grit. You can comment below through Facebook.


Laura Hine tiny  Laura Hine is an editor and writer based on the North Shore of Chicago. Her focus is on getting smart information about relationships, fun and food to other moms. For more of her writing, visit her website:

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