Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Marshmallows and chess boards

I usually read a lot of 'old dead' books – histories that deal only with past events – and I tend to avoid those discussing "current events," especially the political ones. Maybe it's because the past is safer. It's more cut and dried, and opinions don't differ a great deal (most of the time, anyway). But every once in a while I find one that discusses current issues that grabs my attention and maybe even changes the way I think. (I think the last one might have been Four Fish by Paul Greenberg.) Recently I listened to a podcast from the LA Library ALOUD series about How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. I'd seen the book on the NYTimes bestseller list (and skipped getting a free advance copy from Amazon Vine, dangit!) but listening to the author hooked me.

Tough covers a lot of ground in this rather slim book (~200 pages). He starts with visits to failing schools in some of Chicago's toughest inner-city neighborhoods. Kids growing up in the Projects are not only seeing violence in their streets, they may also be dealing with it at home in addition to all the other stress and challenges that come with poverty. Studies show that such stress affects the way children's brains develop in disastrous ways. But there's also evidence that certain traits can overcome these effects over time, and that the proper assistance can help some of those kids. The focus of the book is the trait of "character" which, unfortunately, is a term that means different things to different people. But he also calls it "grit" or the determination to achieve in spite of adversity.

But it's not just poor children who struggle. Studies also show that children of affluent parents, who face high pressure to succeed materially but don't have strong emotional connections with parents, have higher rates of depression and drug use. Likewise, the "helicopter parenting" that protects kids from failure doesn't build the character which is so important. He makes an important distinction between cognitive skills (skills that are measured by tests like the SAT and ACT) and noncognitive skills (skills like delaying gratification, or even being grateful) that are more difficult to assess. He cites the famous Stanford marshmallow study that showed that children who were able to wait with the promise of 2 marshmallows instead of getting 1 right away were generally more successful in later years. And one of the most interesting chapters was about a Bronx school with a very high scoring chess team, where their coach helps them see what they did wrong after each chess match and how they could have played better – and she's pretty hard on them, too! But it turns out chess gives kids better skills to assess their lives and helps them develop character. (It also helps to overcome "confirmation bias," which I found very interesting.)

This is not a self-help book or parenting how-to. Rather, it is a social science and education policy book. Nonetheless, I thought it was so fascinating and full of good information that it's hard to review it here without leaving so much good info out. And I guess I read it with three different perspectives in mind. First of all, as a parent who wants to raise children who can be successful (and happy) in life. Second, as someone who wonders how I can improve my own life (and I'm no fan of self-help books, but I like the scientific approach). And third as a concerned citizen who worries about the current state and future of our nation and its schools.

If you only read one book I recommend on my blog I'd recommend this one. And personally, I plan to include more books like this into my reading.

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