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School of Hard Knocks
August 26, 2012 7:18 PM   Subscribe

"... [T]he character hypothesis: the notion that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success .... Character is created by encountering and overcoming failure .... The offspring of affluent parents are insulated from adversity ... while poor children face no end of challenges ... there is often little support to help them turn these omnipresent obstacles into character-enhancing triumphs." A review of 'How Children Succeed,' by Paul Tough.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear (55 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nothing succeeds like success.
posted by Nomyte at 7:20 PM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


"...character-enhancing triumphs" from Paul Tough [Love]? Eponysterical.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:27 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can't wait for his talk show:
"That's Tough!"
"Tough Gets Going!"
"You Want Help? Tough!"
posted by hal9k at 7:27 PM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wait, so the book claims (among other things) that "The offspring of affluent parents are insulated from adversity, beginning with their baby-proofed nurseries and continuing well into their parentally financed young adulthoods" and thus don't build the character necessary to truly succeed -- and this is supposed to not be what "readers of The New York Times probably subscribe to"? This view is in fact literally what they subscribe to, given that it's reiterated on the op-ed page, The Week in Review, or Styles of the Times at least twice a month.
posted by escabeche at 7:31 PM on August 26, 2012 [11 favorites]


So, a book about the insight that overcoming adversity is character-forming. Is there anything new on top of that, or is that all there is to it?
posted by prefpara at 7:35 PM on August 26, 2012


If adversity created character then surely the poor and struggling would be the finest, most noble among us?
posted by The Whelk at 7:37 PM on August 26, 2012 [23 favorites]


That's what Jesus would have you believe anyway.
posted by bleep at 7:39 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is there anything new on top of that, or is that all there is to it?

Nope, that's it.

You can describe existance in one sentence. Everything ends, everybody dies.
posted by eriko at 7:41 PM on August 26, 2012


Which is, to be fair, a run-on sentence.
posted by escabeche at 7:45 PM on August 26, 2012 [10 favorites]


A history of hardship is not a life asset: What doesn't kill you makes you weaker
posted by everydayanewday at 7:47 PM on August 26, 2012 [18 favorites]


> conscientiousness ... (is) crucial ... to achieving success

Uhm, really?
posted by egor83 at 7:48 PM on August 26, 2012


It's a comma splice, not a run-on.
posted by Peach at 7:48 PM on August 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Another issue with books like this and parents who read them trying to find the magic way to raise a child to make him a genius is that "success" as a child has little to do with long term success as an adult. Plenty of bright stars burn out, and dim bulbs might recognize their potential eventually. Maybe just relax and be nice to your kids and hopefully they'll pay for your medical care when you're super old?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:57 PM on August 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Worried parents of the future, concerned that they have made life too easy for their children, will invest in a device that randomly punches the child in the head. Attempts to remove the device will be met with increasing levels of electric shock. This is the only way to ensure they're a success and full of character later in life. You only get to remove the device when you have children of your own and many families pass the device on from parent to child.
posted by The Whelk at 7:59 PM on August 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


If adversity created character then surely the poor and struggling would be the finest, most noble among us?

Not just adversity, being able to OVERCOME adversity and seeing that you can make it. If you're constantly poor and struggling no matter what happens or how hard you work, it can feel pretty stupid to try.

I work with indigent, inner city kids (first day of school is tomorrow!) and many of them just have SO FEW successes and so few things to which to look forward. Even small setbacks can be devastating because it feels like nothing good will ever happen again.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:01 PM on August 26, 2012 [25 favorites]


Of course the comfortable children of the rich should be shielded from any and all employment or involvement in society, as they have developed no character or resistance and thus, must be kept away from us for their own protection.
posted by The Whelk at 8:02 PM on August 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


If adversity created character then surely the poor and struggling would be the finest, most noble among us?

Those were my first thoughts on reading the headline, but if you continue to read the article, it talks about why too much adversity is bad.
posted by jb at 8:13 PM on August 26, 2012


trading one fundamental attribution error for another.

it's best to think about it in a hierarchical model: social context sets the stage, and within that identities have some kind of agency, conditioned on their past experiences, culture, etc. etc.

were any of us born in the wrong time or place we'd be dead before the age of 5. in the other extreme, just because you have resources available to you doesn't mean YOU can take full advantage of them.
posted by cupcake1337 at 8:18 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Worried parents of the future, concerned that they have made life too easy for their children, will invest in a device that randomly punches the child in the head.

If you're going to borrow from The Wheel, at least give robocop is bleeding a call-out.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:19 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you're going to borrow from The Wheel, at least giverobocop is bleeding a call-out.

Give Walden Two a read and you'll see that Skinner proposed doing the types of things The Whelk mentions long ago. Not punching them or anything, but the children are raised with frequent random tribulations to overcome such as waiting periods before being allowed to eat.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 8:29 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Somewhere, Calvin's dad gave a little knowing smirk, then went back to his paper.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:42 PM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yeah, but Skinner was insane. To quote Sidney Morgenbesser, "Let me see if I understand your thesis. You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:01 PM on August 26, 2012 [9 favorites]


What does success even look like anymore.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:03 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've always thought that Calvin in his later years turned into either Frazz from Frazz (also see) or Slick from Sinfest (see here).
posted by Nomyte at 9:05 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


skinner was not insane. We often give people magical powers when we don't analyze them scientifically.
posted by rebent at 9:08 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I dont really buy that children of the rich face no adversity. Of course dying in a famine is worse than having your parent split in an acrimonious divorce. Of all the kids I knew growing up with no phones, single moms that worked insane hours to pay the bills on the one room apartment in Red Hook. The kids that if they ever had money for snacks after school it was food stamps. None of them seemed at the time particularly downtrodden. They laughed and had fun and sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed. You can't objectively measure your experiences against lifestyles you don't even know exist. That doesn't start until high shool, and by then your path is set no?

I think what the article gets right is the lack of support for poor kids in inner city schools. Most people expect them to fail. Success is graduating high school and not ending up in jail. The bar for the children if the affluent is much higher, which carries its own burdens. Imagine getting rejected from Harvard even though there is a boat house named after your family.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:20 PM on August 26, 2012


Of course the poor are noble. They don't have the means to fuck more than one person at a time.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:24 PM on August 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


That's what Jesus would have you believe anyway.

What would he know about it? Look who his father is.
posted by RobotHero at 9:24 PM on August 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Is there anything new on top of that, or is that all there is to it?

I know it may sound bizzare, but perhaps if you wait for the book to come out so you can read it, you may just find an answer...
posted by c13 at 9:37 PM on August 26, 2012


I have a hard time buying that arguments like these are anything but Protestant work ethic projected onto education and child-rearing. Even the phrase "character building" wreaks of a Tea Party reductionism that assumes a karmic relationship between effort and outcome. Kids who struggle the hardest and strive the most to raise their socioeconomic status are our most successful, according to this narrative, but I wonder if there are any numbers to back it up. It's been my experience that the coddled rich kids invariably go to coddled rich kid schools and then start high-paying, coddled careers. There are also some less-advantaged kids who, through luck, hard work and genuine intelligence, push their way up to the level of the coddled rich kids. The latter group's path to the same goal post is more difficult, time consuming, and expensive. Saying that the non-rich kids develop some nebulous thing called "character" during this process feels like a weirdly condescending consolation prize for someone who probably fought their entire life to make up for their "challenges". Sounds like a bunch of back-patting, status-quo-protecting B.S.
posted by deathpanels at 10:02 PM on August 26, 2012 [13 favorites]


Of course believing that success is based on a nebulous quality like "character" is also petty comforting for people who can't explain their success any other way.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:13 PM on August 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


Yeah, but Skinner was insane. To quote Sidney Morgenbesser, "Let me see if I understand your thesis. You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?.

Makes sense to me. I often wonder how we've managed to build such stunningly unfitting environments for the human animal, when any halfway-serious hobbyist can get a bunch of fragile tropical fish to thrive in a tank fifteen hundred miles from the nearest ocean.

I suspect (hope?) that the idea that human behavior is animal behavior will have its time again.
posted by vorfeed at 10:14 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I suspect (hope?) that the idea that human behavior is animal behavior will have its time again.
that idea opens hell of doors to fucked up shit, though
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:01 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Before we go to far down the crazy hole, let's be clear that Skinner was not insane. Maybe a little ecentric, but that came out of being highly pragmatic. Most of the wackadoo ideas people have about him come out of misreadings or misinformation.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 11:15 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I suspect (hope?) that the idea that human behavior is animal behavior will have its time again.

that idea opens hell of doors to fucked up shit, though


Meanwhile, the idea that the poor and/or suffering must love to be poor and/or suffering because they're doing it of their own ~free will~ has wide and popular currency, and any attempt to provide basic needs like food and shelter to the populace is likewise frequently denied on the ridiculous principle that no one will ever ~will~ themselves to do work if they can eat and sleep without it.

I'm getting tired of hearing that certain ideas necessarily "open fucked up doors", as if our own ideas haven't already let the fucked-up horse out of the fucked-up barn about ten times over. We do not have to walk through all the doors a given idea might open, so we may as well start judging the individual doors rather than discarding large swathes of philosophy and science out of fear.
posted by vorfeed at 11:24 PM on August 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


It seems like a lot of folks are not actually reading the article in favor of reacting to the simple American-dream-propaganda-like statement that "hard work = success." This is not what is going on in the article. (If you really can't be bothered, see Mrs. Pterodacytl's concise comment.)

As far as the basic premise, the thing that truly amazes me is that this is not considered to be completely obvious by everyone in the world. Things like the fact that merely believing you can get smarter allows you to become smarter are clearly obvious if you think about it for a little while, or so it seems to me. But apparently most of us have lied to since we were children about the fact that so much gets "set in stone" when you are born. The fact that economic factors are tied into this doesn't help: people often end up making the opposite conclusion, that being poor or wealthy has something to do with intelligence or "natural ability" (whatever the hell that is), rather than enabling or restricting the freedom to find appropriate challenges for growth.

Really, so much of our achievement in life has everything to do with being in the sweet spot between so-challenging-we-give-up (say, the extremely poor with no family or societal support), and not-challenging-enough-to-provide-any-growth (those wealthy folks who are overly cloistered). It seems like the book being reviewed here is pointing out how closely that is tied to economic factors, on both extremes. It's great to see these ideas getting more prominence.
posted by dubitable at 11:26 PM on August 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Meanwhile, the idea that the poor and/or suffering must love to be poor and/or suffering because they're doing it of their own ~free will~ has wide and popular currency

maybe they're just bad animals. how do we treat bad animals, generally?

see i don't think we are talking about the same thing

i hope we're not
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 12:16 AM on August 27, 2012


And yet Paris Hilton and E,J, Johnson and Johnson seem to be "succeeding" fine.

. [T]he character hypothesis: the notion that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.

Why are those skills considered "non-cognitive"? The kids that can handle patience, loss, adversity, are the usually "smartest" kids I know.

To be honest, I think patience and acceptance of the things they cannot control are the biggest ones (for me).

/fairlynewdad
posted by mrgrimm at 12:33 AM on August 27, 2012


Which is, to be fair, a run-on sentence.

Marry me. :-*
posted by mrgrimm at 12:34 AM on August 27, 2012


I've been having this conversation with my wife a lot these days. On the flip side, a fair number of people who fail and fail and fail and fail and fail (myself, to be honest) kill themselves.

Failure ain't always so grand. Ymmv.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:38 AM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I read the article and found it very strange. My primary question is this: What is success? What definition of success would have the rich kids failing? It must be pretty narrowly defined because education-wise, career-wise, and in financial respects, rich kids "succeed" overwhelmingly. Yes, they're helped by networks and nepotism but by what standard of success are they too coddled to achieve? It looks to me like insulation from the consequences of failure is a key component of success in this world. Little Johnny got caught cheating? Timely donation to the school so his grades don't suffer. Big Johnny lost a billion dollars in other people's money? A hundred million dollar severance package and a corporate position somewhere else.

Isn't it weird that this article does not define success anywhere, not even a simple explanation of what Tough is measuring? I understand this isn't going to contain as much depth as the actual book, but I find that we're supposed to assume some definition of success, we're supposed to come into it with preconceived notions of what success is, and such an approach is suspicious to me.

I also dispute the idea that in America people want to believe IQ determines success as opposed to character. That's not true at all. Maybe they pay lip service to cognitive achievements and making sure little Johnny or Donna is sitting up when they're supposed to and reading by age 3, but American rhetoric and principles are centered around "character". We assume our success is based on character traits, including perseverance (e.g. will power), discipline, morality, which is why we blame individuals (and groups, see The Ethnic Myth) for lack of success, rather than external circumstances.
posted by Danila at 3:52 AM on August 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


Aargh. All these things he's calling "non-cognitive skills" and "character traits" ARE cognitive skills. They may not be easily measured on an IQ test, but skills such as frustration tolerance, emotional regulation, and perspective taking (that lead to those wonderful traits we call "discipline" and "character" and "perseverance") are cognitive skills. They aren't inborn measures of moral goodness. They are necessary skills to have, as much or more than the IQ-type skills are. But seeing someone with a deficit in these skills should prompt us to help them learn, not shake our heads and lament their lack of moral fiber.
posted by Daily Alice at 4:23 AM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


maybe they're just bad animals. how do we treat bad animals, generally?

Behaviorism (you know, Skinner's field) would have us rewarding the behaviors we want, and punishing the behaviors we don't--and both forms of feedback must be as immediate as possible.

You seem to be hearing the phrase "human behavior as animal behavior" and globalizing it, supposing we're going to apply the same (lack of) ethical standards to humans as to animals. But if you finish the job of globalizing the concept, you'll notice that factory farms are terrible at training their animals. Those tiny cages are not Skinner boxes at all.

Context matters.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:23 AM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


The whole point of accepting the things you can't control and changing the things you can control, is developing the wisdom to know the difference. Of course, you "can" control anything; however the effort required may not be worthwhile, or within your resources at the time.

So wisdom, in this context, amounts to the use of good judgment to assess whether it is worth changing the thing, and working out what exactly is required to actually change it.

In the context of the article, having plenty of resources to effect change won't help you, if you don't change things that are actually worth changing. Conversely, you lose if you have insufficient resources to effect worthwhile change, unless your plan includes a way to successfully gain those resources.

And that there, is one of the major philosophical question of our time condensed down to an theorem: do two human situations exist, one broadly expected to be undesirable (situation A), and one desirable (situation B), such that it is impossible to plan out a "hero's journey" (of goalsetting and self-improvement) from situation A to situation B?

Logically the answer must be yes, if we include sufficiently low-resource situation A's such as having a very low IQ, being about to die of cancer, being enslaved in a North Korean concentration camp and monitored 24/7, etc; or sufficiently stringent requirements for success such as being a billionaire, or achieving financial independence within a week, etc.

However if we limit ourselves to situation A being that of a financially poor but physically and mentally capable child, and situation B being that of an economically independent adult (say, having sufficient resources to live independently of external support for six months, and having business acumen and survival skills sufficient to find and create reliable new forms of support within six months) - can anyone get from A to B? If not, is this state of affairs acceptable? If not, what should we change?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:58 AM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm currently working my way through Martin Seligman's "The Optimistic Child," which suggests that adult intervention (through helping kids identify and change their own habitual thinking patterns) can help children become more resilient. His claim is that this trench-level CBT works for children from all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds...but the catch is having parents/teachers that are aware of and willing to take this approach. (As the OP's linked review says, "Children can be buffered from surrounding stresses by attentive, responsive parenting, but the adults in these children’s lives are often too burdened by their own problems to offer such care.")

This statement, also from the book review, is the heart of it for me: "Tough, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, portrays a country of very privileged children and very poor ones, both deprived of the emotional and intellectual experi­ences that make for sturdy character." Helicoptering is not the same as being with, and being responsive to, an individual child. That takes time and commitment and emotional competence, and there's a consequence for kids (and a cost to all of us) when those support structures are absent.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:18 AM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I also dispute the idea that in America people want to believe IQ determines success as opposed to character.

I dunno. This seems pretty true in my experience. In academic contexts, working extra hard to master material is considered "cheating"-- the immigrant Jews and Asians who outperformed their WASP classmates were considered to be not "really" smart because "all" they did was work extra hard to achieve.
posted by deanc at 6:27 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read the article and found it very strange. My primary question is this: What is success?

That's a great question. I hope it's not too circular to answer it by saying that I think success is: getting yourself to a place where you can continuously grow and find new challenges that will bring you to the next level of growth, and therefore, the next set of challenges.

I would guess most of us on MeFi, and most of my good friends and family, would not necessarily define success in terms of material gain or acquiring rarified experiences, but rather in terms of finding one's way through life in a way that is continuously challenging enough to be satisfying but not (eternally) frustrating. I think that's exactly what the book being reviewed is talking about--there is a life that we can have where we are faced with appropriate challenges if we are given the right opportunity to be guided through those challenges, at first, and then find our own way as we become adults.

And of course, some of us don't get the chance either because we are faced with overwhelming poverty and daily strife (those mired in poverty without a support net), or excessive coddling (some of the wealthy...not all).
posted by dubitable at 7:02 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


"The offspring of affluent parents are insulated from adversity, beginning with their baby-proofed nurseries and continuing well into their parentally financed young adulthoods"

That's why they provide all that hazing at Dartmouth.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:06 AM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Context matters. Though generalized that stress among poor children, and isolation among rich children, made it likely that these children would have achievement problems. He claims that a certain balance (between autonomy and support) is necessary--the balance, he says, comes from a functional family unit. Non-functional family units happen in both wealthy and poor families, but they have different characteristics, and their common denominator is that children have a hard time achieving.

His premise seems to be that problem solving builds character, and character is the salient feature of the successful person. He gives pithy anecdotes to support his position, observations from the interested observer.

Ann Paul took me on a nice ride. I'm almost tempted to buy Tough's book to see if there was a point in there somewhere, or if it turns out to be yet another coffee-table version of America, without the coffee. Or the table. Or the pictures.

I was inspired to go into my personal anecdote, about how I was discouraged from taking algebra because I wore tennis shoes in my freshman year of high school. I was stressed. I think I'll save that one.
posted by mule98J at 11:38 AM on August 27, 2012


@LogicalDash

what are the behaviors 'we' want and what happens when people pointedly choose to defy conditioning
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:47 AM on August 29, 2012


A related anecdote and/or koan:

At the foot of our house are 3 cement steps. I have a 1 y.o. who's been walking ~3 weeks. I know. Turn around snd she's gone (fastest crawler I've ever seen).

Yesterday morning, my wife turned around suchly, and down she went those 3 cement steps, face first ("crying so mad" as my 3 y.o. described it.)

Yesterday afternoon, she nigh pulled the same stunt on me, but I don't turn around. I still had to run pretty quick to get her before she lunged again, right on the edge.

Who was the better parent?
posted by mrgrimm at 6:57 AM on August 29, 2012


. Everything ends, everybody dies.

You forgot the last part:

Everything turns to shit. Literally.
posted by mrgrimm at 6:59 AM on August 29, 2012


what are the behaviors 'we' want and what happens when people pointedly choose to defy conditioning

These are bizarre questions. We already have a widespread system of conditioning which encourages people to be consumer spenders who share a certain set of values, and we already run the world's largest prison system for the "benefit" of those who choose to defy it. Likewise, every parent on Earth uses these same principles to teach their kids, whether they know they're doing it or not.

Our discomfort with conditioning on the part of society didn't end the practice -- it led to widespread use of positive reinforcement on the part of corporations and other asocial/anti-social entities, combined with a political ideology which sees disproportional negative reinforcement as the only option for (post-hoc) social control. I think a mere attempt on the part of society to ask questions like "what behaviors do we want and how can we create an environment which encourages them" would be a huge step up from denying that the question exists, even as we answer it with state-sanctioned violence.

Besides, all we need to do to keep social conditioning from becoming harmful is to limit ourselves to providing positive reinforcement for the most widely-desired behaviors. Negative reinforcement is both less effective and more problematic, so we can pretty much punt the question of "what happens when people pointedly choose to defy conditioning" and concentrate on conditioning people in the first place. These are things Skinner pointed out fifty years ago, and they're things any animal trainer will tell you... and again, human beings are animals.
posted by vorfeed at 1:23 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


also, thinking of 'society' as a monolithic thing that can "ask questions" seems kind of wrongheaded. whose society, yours or mine? which "we"?

i don't know if there's an answer that doesn't end up fucking someone over.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 3:44 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


i don't know if there's an answer that doesn't end up fucking someone over.

Again, we already have an answer as to whose "society" gets to decide what behaviors we encourage (money), and it's already fucking millions of people over. I don't agree with many of the behaviors society currently teaches, but that only suggests that there are better behaviors to teach, not that teaching and/or society itself is a suspect concept.

The only ones who'll be fucked over by teaching behaviors like "voting" and "volunteering" and "civic responsibility" and "exercise" and "picking up trash" are the monied interests which benefit from the fact that we stopped doing these things in the first place. The idea that there's no "we" is part of what's allowing "us" to get fucked-over at rates unheard of since the early part of the 20th century, even though "we" almost entirely agree on what's fair.

"We" tend to say excuse-me after we sneeze. "We" know who Mickey Mouse is. "We" are talking right now over a huge worldwide network that would cease to function without the constant concerted effort of hundreds of thousands of "us" (and the same goes for our highway system, and our medical system, and our first responders, etc.) If you get a few hundred of "us" together in a dark room and play a beat that goes ONE-two-three-four you can usually get most of "us" to start dancing. That's all you need to have a society which really does ask and answer questions, though not always out loud... the only issue is when we're going to wake up and realize that the human microphone trick works on a scale of millions as well as thousands.
posted by vorfeed at 10:42 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


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