Monday, December 31, 2012


Box for sandpaper and saw blades
I am reading How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough, thanks to blog reader Bill, who sent it to me by mail after he had finished it. His own review was (in part) that it was "a tough read... sort of like wading in mud," but that is often the way of non-fiction books that have a way of dancing around complex issues only slowly getting to the point which may have been obvious to some in the first place.

I am not exactly sure what the word success means. In a successful society, one that takes advantage of diverse interests, diverse experience, diverse capabilities, multiple intelligences, diverse learning styles, complex cooperative and creative problem solving skills, to have a singular notion of what constitutes success misses the boat. In terms of the individual, to have something of significance to contribute to a culture the future of which is actually an unknown, is a difficult thing to prepare for. In any case, those looking for a simple formula to guarantee success in their kids won't find it in this book. Success is a hard to define term. It's relative to what goals might be, and just as success is difficult to define, finding it, whatever it might be is not a path devoid of hard work, and attempting to offer it to one's own children requires a great deal of attention to skilled and tactful parenting.

How Children Succeed does make the point that schools and parents have missed the boat by thinking that success is mostly a matter of intelligence rather than character and grit. Success in meaningful things is always a matter of hard work, and often difficult parenting. (Not that that isn't a joy). In the meantime Tiger Mothers with their fear that their children will fail at anything, get behind and keep shoving.

There have been a number of illuminating books on the idea of child success. The story of the Tiger Mother was one. Malcolm Gladwell's book the Outliers, another. This book too, seems so far in my reading to add some interesting insight to the mix.

Yesterday I talked with a good friend John about our kids, his son, my daughter. John's son Michael now works as assistant to the Provost at a Texas university, has his law degree and two master's degrees and is beginning work on a PhD in economics. Michael appears at at this point to be headed toward becoming academic leader of a university, and so we were talking about the parenting skills that apply to that level of "success."

Where children are given unconditional love, by parents who are themselves concerned with important issues and full participation in life, those parents give their children a leg up by example. Where some degree of rigorous engagement is also an expected requirement, with insistence that children meet their assigned responsibilities appropriate to their age, children are given tools of character that will lead them to greater success.

And there is no better way to learn about the real world, or to develop rigorous involvement in it, than by making objects of useful beauty. This morning I finished a new box to hold sandpaper and saw blades. The beauty of it is entirely in its usefulness, making my wood shop better organized, helping me to keep closer track of my inventory of various grits of sand paper, and helping me to keep my blades sharp and safe,

Make, fix and create...

PS, Thanks Bill, for the book! I'll pass it along when my reading is complete.


  1. On the subject of books and learning, have you had the chance to read any of the books by (via an amenuensis) Nobel laureate in physics, Richard Feynman (e.g. Surely you're Joking, Mr. Feynman)? The books have little to do with physics with each chapter more of an anectdote from Feynman's life. A light read. What is captivating about it though, is Feynman's own child-like approach to learning.

  2. Geoff, No, I've not read those books. It does seem that learning is at its best when we are child like in our wonder. Thanks for the suggestion.


  3. Success, as I told my students over the years, is something they should define for themselves rather than buying into what the advertising and media define for us. I consider myself very successful, even though I've never made much money. My measure is about family, friends, places I've visited, things I've made. I hope my sons learned something from this.