How Children Succeed, with Paul Tough

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Paul Tough (journalist and author of The Years That Matter Most) walks us through his research on both early childhood and higher education, and how we can set our children up for success at various points of their development. “We can help our kids learn how to how to learn from their failures, how to bounce back from setbacks, but also how to consider others in the same way that we think about ourselves–not to see the world as this competition for scarce resources, but us as a world in which when we work together, we all do better.”

Show Notes

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Good Kids: How Children Succeed, with Paul Tough transcript


[00:36] Hi, my name is Paul Tough, and this is Good Kids.


[00:40] A few years ago, back in 2012, I came out with a book called How Children Succeed. I’d spent a few years reporting that book, I’m a journalist. That’s what I do, I go and talk to educators, and researchers, and young people to try to understand what’s going on in schools and homes and the society at large. 


[00:58] And what I wrote about in that book was this emerging body of research that was pointing toward these character strengths that some people called non-cognitive skills. And the idea that that these researchers and educators were kind of fumbling towards was that our obsession with test score — this sort of narrow band of cognitive skills that you can measure on standardized tests — that that was distracting us from the kind of qualities and character strengths and skills that actually were most important in a child’s development. 


[01:33] Things like grit and curiosity, conscientiousness, the ability to get along with others, the ability to stick with a task over the long-term. And that actually if you looked at those qualities, they turned out to be more predictive of future success. 


[01:48] And there were educators who were trying to figure out how do we measure these, how do we develop them in young people and parents as well, who were trying to figure out what can we do in our homes to help our kids develop these skills? A lot of the research that I found to be most important was research about early childhood, about the first few years of life, this phenomenon that some neuroscientists have discovered called licking and grooming. That in the early years of a baby rat’s life, the thing that their mothers, their parents do that is most important in their development is this thing called licking and grooming. Is just this sort of up-close care and nurturing. And that when baby rats — pups — got this licking and grooming, they were more likely to as adult rats to show more bravery, more curiosity, more ability to take on challenging tasks.


[02:51] We often think, you know, in early childhood that, like, we got to make our kids tough and make sure they can stand on their own. But in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s that sort of nurturing and love and caring in those first few months and years of life that matters the most. What I think makes parenting so challenging is that in later childhood and adolescence, it’s a different kind of parenting that helps develop these character strengths. It’s pulling back a little bit. It’s letting your kids fail, letting them experience real challenges and not protecting them too much. And one of the things that I came away with was that there is no real roadmap for parents of how you get from that licking and grooming style of parenting to this more independent style of parenting, where we’re pulling back and letting our kids develop these strengths on their own. 


[03:39] My wife and I have two kids, two boys. They’re four and 10. Actually, the younger one is four-and-a-half. He will be sure to tell you. And we live in Austin, Texas. Basically, I’ve spent their entire lives trying to trying to walk that line between too much licking and grooming and too much autonomy and independence. And it is always a struggle. I think my wife and I are more naturally lickers and groomers, but, especially with our 10-year-old, we are trying to let him fail. We’re trying to let him deal with life’s challenges on his own. And, you know, sometimes, sometimes we get it right. And a lot of times we continue to get it wrong. 


[04:22] For the last few years, I have been reporting a new book. And so after many years of writing about early childhood and K-12 education, I am now writing about higher education, about college. So for the last few years, I’ve been talking to, again, lots of educators and economists and sociologists and political scientists and psychologists, but also a lot of young people. And especially young people at the end of high school and the beginning of college as they’re making this transition. This idea — you know, I call the book The Years that Matter Most, and that is mostly based on economics, on this emerging science that shows that the decisions that kids make, and that are made for them in those first few years after high school, are critical in their trajectory through the rest of their life. But the reason that I enjoyed talking to these young people so much is that those years — that sort of late adolescence and early adulthood — is also tremendously important in terms of any individual’s psychological, emotional character, neurological development, moral development. This is the moment where they are really becoming independent. And it’s this strange fact about contemporary American life that these years that are so often tumultuous and strange, and kids make all kinds of mistakes, and they make all sorts of, you know, bad, bad decisions and wrong turns, that are our economy, our sort of social structure in this country, has placed all of this pressure onto those years. So at this moment, when these kids are, you know, super kind of fragile and making weird decisions, we have created a system where the decisions they make and what happens in those years turns out to be highly predictive of how things will go for the rest of our life. Maybe not an ideal situation, but it is the one we’ve got.


[08:22] A lot of the lens through which I looked at college was the lens of social mobility. This experience that economists have talked about for decades, centuries, of how likely young people are to change their social class, to rise above the income level of their parents, or to fall below the income level of their parents. And what’s happened in the United States over the last few decades is that social mobility and higher education have become more and more intertwined. But in the decades since the postwar era, that engine of social mobility, that higher education represented, has really started to break down. And for many young people today — especially those whose parents didn’t go to college or who are growing up in low-income or working-class homes — higher education no longer feels like and is the engine of social mobility that it was. Instead, it more often feels like the obstacle to their social mobility, like the thing that is keeping them from achieving their goals, and from economic security. And the reality is it feels pretty hard. You know, I think we have created a system where higher education, especially for low-income kids, is a really difficult process to manage. It’s hard to figure out how to get into the right college, how to choose the right college. It’s hard to figure out how to pay for college, especially if you’re from a family without a lot of means. And it’s also hard just to survive in college, to graduate. I mean, certainly academically there are challenges, but even moreso, it’s the culture of college, the social life of college that I think for so many young people is difficult. And these are good kids and they work tremendously hard. But, you know, I sort of felt two things watching them work. One is that it seemed like their adolescences were not super fun. 


[10:12] I mean, they were, you know, often really stressed out by high school, really stressed out by the college process, feeling like they were caught in the system where they had to get into the college of their choice, to their dream school, or their lives were going to be ruined. They were feeling that message, hearing that message from everybody around them, from their peers, from their parents, from their society. Even when, you know, those parents and that society was sometimes, you know, out loud saying the opposite. Saying, oh, it doesn’t matter where you go, you’re going to fit in wherever you end up. They were hearing this other message that I think we were sending them in a more implicit way that it really, really matters where you go. That often led them to to feel extremely stressed out. 


[10:57] What do you do about that? If you are a parent with some money, you know, from a comfortable home, if you yourself were a college graduate, and you’re trying to prepare your kids for applying to college and for going to college, what do you do about the fact that this system is unfair? And even if it doesn’t always feel that way, it’s unfair on your behalf. That you, because of your comfort or your resources, you have this unfair advantage. And I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that. I think that it’s, you know, it’s these questions about privilege that I think a lot of us are wrestling with and trying to think through these days.


[11:47] I think that we can help our kids make good decisions for themselves. You know, if that means helping them prepare for the SAT and the ACT, if that means helping them apply to highly selective colleges, then I can’t argue with that. I think it might be the right choice for any individual student and any individual parent. I don’t think we should go all the way to Photoshopping our kids’ heads onto placekickers, but, you know, up to that point. But at the same time, I think that it is possible to advocate for a fairer system. Parents and students especially are two of the constituencies who have the most power, the most potential impact to change that system. And mostly I think we don’t right now advocate for a fairer system because we are encouraged to think of this as a winner-take-all kind of competitive world where higher education is whatever that kid down the block gets, it means my kid doesn’t get. If we think about higher education not just as something to get for ourselves and to get for our kids, but as something that our society benefits when it is shared more equally, when the opportunity that comes through social mobility, through higher education, is shared more equally, I think we have a better country. 


[13:03] Our collective higher education benefits us all. And as parents and as young people, as adolescents, I think we can advocate for that in our high schools, in our colleges. And in colleges that we attended that are asking now for donations. We have a lot of pressure points that we can push on to try to make the system more fair. And I think that’s an important step for any family to take. 


[13:34] In my opinion, the qualities that we want to develop in our kids the most, the things that make us good humans — there are two things that I think are sometimes in opposition. And one is persistence and grit and sort of stick-to-it-iveness. And the other is empathy and caring and fairness. And I think we often, as adults, as parents, and certainly as kids, we see those two things being in opposition. Either you’re that tough, gritty person who wins at all costs and forgets everybody else. Or you’re that soft, snowflake-y, empathetic person who just puts everyone else before yourself. I think it’s tricky, but I do think that those two things can absolutely go together. And I think of it through the lens of higher education. I think of the people who are working hard to try to make higher education more fair and more equitable, they are expressing both. They’re expressing both this sense of persistence, this ability to learn from their failures and their setbacks, their ability to see the big picture and stick with things that I think has its roots in childhood. But they are also using that grit, that persistence, full of a sense of fairness, a sense of equity, a sense of empathy for people who aren’t always exactly like them. And I think we can develop both in our kids. We can help them learn how to learn from their failures, how to bounce back from setbacks, but also how to consider others in the same way that we think about ourselves. Not to see the world as this competition for scarce resources, but as a world in which when we cooperate, when we work together, when we think of those with fewer resources than we have, we all do better.


[15:31] You can find me on the web at My new book, ‘The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us’ is on Amazon and independent bookstores around the country. Thanks very much for listening. 


[15:54] Good Kids is a production of Lemonada Media. It’s produced and edited by Andrew Stephen. Our executive producer is Stephanie Wittels Wachs and our music is by Dan Milad. Ad sales and distribution are by Westwood One. You can find out more about Lemonada online at If you liked what you heard, share, rate, review, say great things about us.


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