Advanced search

Please don't promote book giveaways here. If you'd like to discuss book giveaways on Mumsnet,

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. Post your questions to the author on the best ways to help your child lead a successful and fulfilling life. Q&A ANSWERS BACK

(42 Posts)
RachelMumsnet (MNHQ) Thu 18-Apr-13 11:28:40

Paul Tough's book, How Children's Succeed examines whether good performance in GCSE and A level really is the key to success in life. He traces the links between childhood stress, childhood cosseting, and life success and uncovers the surprising ways in which parents prepare or fail to prepare their children for adulthood.

Find out more about How Children Succeed. Post a question to him on this thread. The Q&A will be open until 10th May and we'll post up Paul's answers on 20 May.

moonbells Thu 16-May-13 12:23:56

Wish that the Q&A wasn't closed - I've still not received my paid-for copy (cheers Amazon)

RobinBedRest Thu 16-May-13 14:59:51

Do you think mainstream education encourages the characteristics needed for success or discourages them. It sounds like children need to learn to motivate themselves and follow their interests and this goes against the idea of 30 to a class following a preset curriculum?

Shaler Thu 16-May-13 15:38:50

Thank you Mumsnet for my copy of the book, which was very interesting and well written, dealing with some complex theories but still easy to read. Having studied child development, I was already aware of attachment theory and found that chapter most thought provoking. Like Katb, however, I too was hoping to find some practical advice on how to ensure my children fulfil their potential, develop grit etc., learn to handle failure and enjoy a rich and rewarding life.

The book was completely different from what I imagined it to be and I agree with Sapeke's comments that the book is a "well-argued account of how to fix failing educational standards in deprived areas of America" but I too felt that the book wasn't particularly relevant to my family or the UK education system. The blurb on the cover is indeed misleading.

Still, a very good book, which my husband is also looking forward to reading. Will be watching the rest of the thread with great interest.

LaraMumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 21-May-13 10:08:11

We now have the answers back from Paul Tough, and I will be posting them up very shortly.

PaulTough Tue 21-May-13 10:40:42


You list optimism as a key factor. Is it possible to instill some in a child raised by two optimistic parents, who appears hell bent on pessimism?

Keep in mind that optimism is not genetic – we don't inherit it from our parents. So it's not unheard of that two optimists might wind up raising a pessimist (especially if that pessimist is currently an adolescent, a period of life when pessimism is epidemic). But the psychologist Martin Seligman, author of the book Learned Optimism, makes a strong case that parents can do a lot to help their children develop a more optimistic outlook. Seligman isn't talking about a naïve, rose-coloured-glasses optimism. Instead, he urges us to teach our kids to develop a more positive and resilient attitude toward setbacks, to "reframe" those setbacks so that they seem like small, solvable problems, rather than permanent disasters. With the right conversations – and a little patience – I think parents can help their children develop that valuable perspective.

PaulTough Tue 21-May-13 10:44:11


Hi Paul. Thank you for taking the time to chat to us.

I was affected a lot by the strictness and high expectations of my parents so this is a subject close to my heart. I am now the mother of a very alert, curious and observant 6 month old who loves attention and loves to "chat" to me about everything she sees, and I am keen to give her a more positive childhood than I had. In the absence of any time at all to read your book (although it is on my To Do list!), could you tell me what you think are the three most important things I should do at this early age to give her the best chance of succeeding in whatever she wants to do in life and being a confident adult?

Thank you!

Hi YompingJo. Your daughter sounds wonderful, and she's lucky to have a parent so committed to giving her a nurturing childhood. It sounds like you're doing a lot already to help her succeed, but here are two other thoughts:

1. The research on attachment psychology suggests that for the first 12 to 18 months of a child's life, the most important thing that parents can give to their children is what psychologists call a "secure attachment" – a close, attuned bond between parent and child. We create those attachments by being calm and loving toward our babies, by comforting them when they're scared or upset, and by responding appropriately to their verbal and non-verbal cues.

2. It's also important to help your daughter learn how to deal with stress. That might sound strange when we're talking about a 6-month-old, but recent research on stress suggests that helping our kids learn early on how to manage stressful situations is one of the best things we can do for them. At six months, that mostly means a lot of comforting and rocking and singing when she's distressed. But as she gets older, it also means talking her through stressful moments, helping her understand that she has the ability to calm herself down after a fright or a tantrum.

PaulTough Tue 21-May-13 10:47:05


I'm the mother of 6 year old boy/girl twins. The experience of raising 2 children together has made me sceptical about the extent to which parents can really influence character. As babies my son screamed if held by anyone but me while his sister was bold and adventurous. She was proud of never crying when they were left at nursery school. Somehow without me even noticing at the time between 3 and 4 they have swapped personalities. He is now intensely curious about the world, has made friends at school while she is so shy she often cannot talk. If my parenting is to blame (and I do blame myself) how come they are so different?

I don't think I can give you a definitive answer about your own children, but I will say that the research on attachment often seems counterintuitive. For instance, during the post-war years, child psychologists told parents that being too responsive to infants' cries would "spoil" them, making them too dependent. Makes sense, right? Now we understand that being responsive to infants and comforting them when they cry actually makes them more secure and confident as they grow older.

So I wonder if that's part of what happened with your children. When your son was acting clingy and fearful as an infant, perhaps he was actually developing the secure attachment that allowed him to feel confident later on. And maybe your daughter, because of her early independence, missed out on some of that early nurturing that would have given her more security and confidence later on.

That said, it's also true that kids change as they grow, in all kinds of unpredictable ways. Who knows, your twins may switch roles a few more times in the years ahead! And I think it's important to remind them (and yourself) of that. Be careful not to overly reinforce their dominant characteristics, so that your shy daughter, for instance, doesn't internalize the idea that she's always going to be shy.

PaulTough Tue 21-May-13 11:23:30


Hello Paul, I have read your excellent book - well worth your dropping out of college for! Thanks.

I have a 12 year old who we have finally agreed to put on Concerta (like Ritalin) for distraction and lack of concentration. We have been to 3 Ed Psych's, (suggested by the schools) four parenting courses, two school councillors and I have read virtually every book going. (I am obviously one of the Riverdale equivalents of course!). We have resisted the medication route, but having listened to the great ADHD Voices project decided to go for it. (The project features very moving real life experiences of kids on meds and is really worth listening to).

To our surprise this has dramatically changed his life. From the age of 2 he has been in minor middle class types of trouble and despite great scores on cognitive assessments, was very easily distracted, poor concentration, poor grades etc and though quite popular, very unhappy at the two schools he has been at. He has an explosive temper and a short fuse, so he was always in fights or in tears. All that has gone.

We are now two months in and from the first day he took it, the daily behaviour report he was on was spotless, (from being a catalogue of complaints); he can control his impulses, is never in fights, and is learning 'conscientiousness' and reaping the results. He has missed quite a bit of ground-building learning and still doesn't seem inclined to see getting good marks in exams as a worthy goal, but we are working on those! He is exactly his old fun, daft self and doesn't think he has changed at all, but is now really happy at school and finally feels 'in control' of himself.

I read your book and can see that we 'should' have been able to find a way to help him without the medication. We are not helicopter parents, though our parenting classes say we could be more consistent in our discipline, though of course other parents think he is the model of politeness! I feel we have tried very hard and perhaps a mixture of our own personalities or the combination of genes and environment have got us to where we are. But I can't feel that it was a bad decision - what do you think about medication in this sort of scenario?

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the book. And I'm pleased that you were able to find a solution for your son and that things have turned around so profoundly for him. You're right that I am somewhat sceptical of medication for many of the kids who are diagnosed with attention disorders – I do think there's some decent evidence that those disorders are being over-diagnosed these days and that pharmaceutical treatments are being overprescribed. But that certainly doesn't mean that those treatments are never appropriate and effective. Your son's case is a great example of how effective they can be. There are plenty of young people whose attention disorders are caused at least in part by a neurological imbalance, and for those kids, medication is often the perfect solution.

PaulTough Tue 21-May-13 11:24:47


As a music teacher, I work with children from all kinds of backgrounds. I find that often, children from disadvantaged homes have little ambition, whereas more affluent children have high expectations for their future lives.
How important do you think instilling a sense of aspiration and ambition is to young children?
Thank you.

The short answer is that aspiration and ambition are critically important to children's success. But it's important to remember that kids from disadvantaged homes aren't genetically less ambitious – their sense of their own potential may be constricted by what they see around them. By contrast, when children who grow up in poverty receive a clear and convincing message that they can aspire to great things, they will often respond by working harder than anyone else. As a teacher, you have the opportunity to help young people from difficult backgrounds develop those aspirations.

PaulTough Tue 21-May-13 11:35:13


Final question- would school choice have an impact on kids without the 5 attributes?

My dad and uncle were like my less motivated son and both got sent to highly selective grammar schools.Both became very successful in their fields.One is a medical scientist and the other very high up in the RAF,MBE the lot(dad had a difficult childhood).

Could being surrounded by high expectations,motivation,perseverance etc have an impact and change of attitudes?

Having to make this decision ourselves.Swot boy really wants to go to the grammar however would it be positive or neg for his twin?Would the expectations and ethos be a positive thing or could they make him miserable being very different to his personality traits?

Apologies if any of my questions don't have a lot to do with the book being discussed,haven't read it

Hi Squarepebbles. I'm going to try to address your three questions together, since they all seem related.

I'm not qualified to give you specific advice on your twins, but I'll share a couple of thoughts. The first is to remember that being a twin can be hard – being a sibling can be hard, for that matter. While twins are often very close, they are often very competitive as well, and they can find it difficult to figure out how to establish a unique identity distinct from their sibling. One way to establish that identity is to do the opposite of whatever your twin is doing – which sounds like the approach that your "less motivated" son is now pursuing.

And so you may find it easier for him to develop internal motivation if you allow or encourage him to follow a somewhat different path from his brother. Rather than forcing him to write a pen-pal letter for an hour – something his twin brother excels at – maybe there's another task he could do (washing the car? planting a garden? painting a picture for his pen pal?) that would let him demonstrate responsibility and skill in his own way.

While every child needs to develop these underlying character strengths, each child develops and displays them in different ways. Part of our job as parents is to help them find the right path to get there.

PaulTough Tue 21-May-13 11:36:46


How do I improve my sons "resilience" he is almost 6 and in year 1 he has a twin sister, he loves school and has lots of friends but recently hisvteacher has said he gets reall wound up by his friends teasing, I've also noticed this at home when his twin sister teases him or critises his handwriting or drawing he flies into a rage.

It's natural for children to be upset by teasing, but it sounds like your son is feeling especially sensitive these days. I think the best thing you can do is talk to him about the situation in a calm and supportive way. Make sure he knows that you understand and sympathise with his anger. But at the same time, emphasize your belief that he has the ability to calm himself down and bounce back from these episodes. Rather than intervening to try to protect him from criticism, it's better to give him the message that he can handle it – and that you're there to help him find the right strategy.

PaulTough Tue 21-May-13 11:42:10


I have a bright daughter (now age 9) who finds school easy. I worry she isn't learning to make mistakes, find things difficult and work through it. It's all coming to her too easily, she does things to the minimum (but sufficient for her teacher) and gets cross if i suggest she should do more, expand, extra etc... should i be worried about this or just be grateful that academically she'll be ok.

This can be a real problem for bright children. If the message they get from teachers and others around them is that they're doing just fine with minimal effort, it can dissuade them from hard work. The psychologist Carol Dweck has done fascinating research on praise and effort that shows that when we praise children for their natural gifts – when we tell them they're brilliant and talented – they actually tend to work less hard. They become afraid to push themselves, because they’re worried that if they try and fail, they'll reveal themselves to be less gifted than everyone thinks. But when we praise children for their effort, they develop what Dweck calls a Growth Mindset. And children with that mindset tend to work harder, take on more challenges, and feel more confident about the struggles that are essential to intellectual growth.

PaulTough Tue 21-May-13 11:47:38


Hi Paul,

this book looks fascinating!

We have a very bright and competitive but naturally lazy twelve year old son, although we are diligent, education-oriented parents. I think our own education histories prove the fact that hard work gets you a long way in life! He is however very single-minded when he chooses to be. He attends a super-selective grammar school (which he himself was keen to go to) but is still coasting. He did no revision at all for his Year 7 exams but has still managed to score average (to his school cohort) results of 65% in most of his exams. Of course we can see that if he put his mind to it, he would easily be up with the high-achievers but that he lets himself down thro' being lazy. Do we just back off and let him find his own way with his studies or do we change our approach? My head says that he has to find his own way and motivate himself but we are worried that he will not fulfill his potential if we take such an approach.

It is interesting that children from the same nuclear family can have such different educational and vocational outcomes in life. That surely must be more to do with nature than nurture? A friend comes from a family of three with one exceptionally academic sibling who picks up achievements with sheer hard work and determination (but hasn't really achieved anything career-wise), another who by the standards of the family achieved least academically but has probably done best vocation-wise, considering mediocre academic outcomes, of the three of them. The third was super-clever, went to Oxbridge, got a profession and is still in a very competitive career but hasn't really achieved the same level of success that one might have expected.

One thing to remember is that it can be stressful to be the child of diligent, education-oriented parents! When parents put a lot of emphasis on one particular outcome for their children – whether that's education or income or appearance or athletic ability – then that's often precisely the area that children choose to test out parental limits and assert independence. This can often be upsetting and frustrating for all involved.

I think you can and should convey to your son, in as calm and supportive a manner as possible, that you believe he can do better and that you're ready to help if he needs it. But the decision to apply himself has to be his own. One other thought – for many young people, being up there with the high-achievers doesn't always seem like a particularly attractive goal, especially when the mid- or low-achievers seem to be enjoying life more (and getting more positive attention from their peers). One way to counter that, for your son, is to expose him to examples of high-achievers, in any field, who are able to combine hard work with fun, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

PaulTough Tue 21-May-13 11:51:10


Thank you Mumsnet for my copy, it was an informative and interesting read. As the mother of a 4 and 6 year old I was hoping to find some practical advice on how to make sure they continue to live a life that is full and rewarding and achieve to their potential whatever that turns out to be. Many of the issues discussed and case studies presented were based on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. I found these highly interesting but was hoping for a more balanced view encompassing and giving advice across the class system.

My question to Paul is the following: How can I ensure that my children develop resilience (grit) and learn to handle failure constructively when at the moment they focus on activities and experiences they find easy and avoid those that they find more challenging? How much influence should a parent exert on their young children to make them face challenges they may otherwise avoid?

Unfortunately, I don't think we can ensure that our children develop grit – there are no sure things in parenting. But I do think there are plenty of things that parents can do to create an environment for children where failure is seen as not just acceptable but an important stepping-stone on the way to success.

We can do that by encouraging our children to try new things, to take risks, to get out of their comfort zone, to feel O.K. about setbacks. But we also do that in the way we model failure for our children. Often we say the right things to our kids about failure, but in how we react to their failures, we send a very different message. Finally, I think it's valuable for us as parents to talk honestly with our children about our own struggles and failures and how we deal with them. When children see that their parents sometimes try things and fail, but are able to recover and go on to success, that's a powerful message for them.

PaulTough Tue 21-May-13 12:06:58


Hi, unfortunately I missed this book giveaway which sounds fascinating and perhaps goes close to one of my main parenting worries. So haven't read the book.

Personally, looking back at my own childhood, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do extra-curricular sport/music. I remember from a very young age throughout my whole school 'career' putting pressure on myself to achieve in everything I lay my hands at. Definitely pressure to do well my self. From this I achieved top grades in all GCSEs and A levels, through to degree level which has helped to put me where I am in life, but looking back I don't think I had much time to 'not worry much' through my teens.

Through my experiences, I am now trying to discover how I try not to repeat this with my own children. (Or if i naturally have a very conscientious/anxious child how to relax them!)Is there a happy medium? How does your child have a 'childhood' throughout school whilst still achieving? And not worrying themselves about their academic achievements to a stressful level? How does a child succeed with minimal stress!

And is it a good idea when parents start their kids on music lessons/sport lessons or encourage writing from a pre-school age? Or does this encourage 'stress'? I think there's pressure when you see many parents starting their children young with things and wondering if you should do the same yourself.

Thank you, sorry for all the questions.

Stress is not always a bad thing for children. There's a chapter in my book about a high-achieving student chess team from a low-income neighbourhood in New York City. While reporting that chapter, I got to attend a lot of chess tournaments, and those are always stressful for players. So is performing in a school play, taking part in a football match, sitting for a big exam – or even asking a pretty girl to dance. That kind of stress can be scary – but it can also be exhilarating.

Our job as parents is not to protect our kids from that kind of stress; it's to give them the psychological tools and the emotional support they need to manage that stress. That means giving them the space to talk about their worries and fears and empathising with those worries. But it also means conveying to our children our confidence that they can overcome those fears, and that they can do so without much help from us. It's never easy to find the right balance here – it's easy to place too much stress on kids, and it's just as easy to protect them too much from stress – but it's a crucial balance to strive for nonetheless.

PaulTough Tue 21-May-13 12:18:45

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough is out now! And you can purchase it from Random House Books, £12.99.

gazzalw Tue 21-May-13 16:35:44

Thanks, Paul. Wise words

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, watch threads, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now »

Already registered? Log in with: