How Kids Succeed: Not Such a Secret

Last week I said I'd write more about Paul Tough's best-selling book How Children Succeed.  Then I had another peek inside one of the best if not best parenting books around today, Ellen Galinsky's Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, another take on roughly the same topic.  A book I could not help but think about while reading Mr. Tough's book.  A book that Mr. Tough never  mentions.  I wonder if he read it?

If you want to read about grit, self-control and character with a limited assortment of studies and experts sprinkled in between film-worthy real life stories of kids succeeding despite significant obstacles and some ideas on educational reform then read Mr. Tough's book. It's a good read. Heavens knows parents and educators need to read it since they (we) spend so much time grooming intelligence, test scores and other academic achievements when we could all benefit from brushing up on a variety of "non-cognitive skills" as Tough calls them.  He makes a good case for why they're crucial for success and it's a relatively quick read. It's just that he leaves out the most important part - how to teach them to kids.

Enter Ellen Galinsky, President and Co-Founder of Families and Work Institute at the Bank Street College of Education. 

Girlfriend knows from self-control and empathy. Not only has she come up with her own list of seven skills sure to help your kid move out and get a reasonably fulfilling job but she shows us how to instill them through hundreds of examples.  Right now. You can work on them tonight at the dinner table.  Needless to say here at Momma Data, Galinsky's also backed the list up with empirical evidence she's collected while reading at least a thousand studies over eight years. Think of it as a reference manual.  Or bible.  Each chapter is devoted to one skill thus it's easy to use especially when you're running low on stress management (Taking on Challenges, Chapter 6) or the other valuable assets:

Focus and Self Control
Making Connections
Critical Thinking
Taking on Challenges
Self-Directed, Engaged Learning

You'll notice the inclusion of skills we generally deem as cognitive such as critical thinking or perspective-taking.  Galinsky is quite clear all these skills along with those Tough outlines are very much cognitive skills related to executive functions. In fact here's a recent post on her blog at
When I left the Education Summit everyone seemed to be talking about developing life skills, not just basic academics, in children as a way to ready the workforce of the future. That's a good thing. What's not so good is the perception that such skills, including self-control and taking on challenges, are soft, or non-cognitive skills.

These skills require intellect and are indeed cognitive skills as much as they're social and emotional skills.

If we don't get the language right we risk seeing the focus on skills end up as an education flavor of the month.
I hear you, Ellen.  I think the skills all involve a good deal of executive function but I see Paul's point that the skills are often perceived as less academic in nature. In addition it's easy to forget reading Tough's book that IQ does predict success, academic or otherwise quite well compared to any other single measure.  No need to throw out the brain with the IQ tests. 

As for Tough's book, personally I got frustrated trying to figure out where each chapter was headed, was he talking about curiosity or optimism? Why the large focus on chess? Where's the plot?  Anyone? Who read it?  Maybe I should stop reading parenting books. Or at least reviewing them. Anyone?

Unlike my house and social life, I prefer my non-fiction well-organized.  If I'm going to waste an hour or two reading instead of catching up on Tivo I can't stand hunting for the topic and main arguments.  Blame it on my high school English teacher or my stint writing very structured academic articles but I have no patience for the more pop-psychology arrangements. I know, a surprising admission in this blog that sometimes passes as an excuse for a rambling rant.


Awesome Mom said...

Don't stop reviewing these books! I have had several recommended to me and I like getting ones that are clear and useful. I got Ellen's book based on your review and will enjoy looking over it over Thanksgiving.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Awesome. Let me know what you think about Ellen's book. I feel like the Andy Rooney of the parenting crowd sometimes and after seeing my natural eye brows thanks to post-Sandy schedule changes pushing off any professional plucking, I fear I may also start resemble the infamous grump.

andrea said...

Yes, keep with the book reviews, especially if we can safely downgrade them off our Must Read list. Saves me time as I'm still making my way through your 2011 list (should be done with Thinking Fast and Slow by 2016). On an unrelated note, I'm dying to hear what you think of apes having a mid-life crisis!

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Andrea! LMK what you think about Mind in the Making and How Children Succeed - the latter's worth a trip to the library.

Oh, the apes! When reading about them I had to laugh but I remember an article recently debunking the phenomenon of mid-life crisis. Haven't studied up on the topic or research - don't know if it's been that hot of late. Frankly I'm eager to have one myself because I would love to have an excuse to start wearing my bathrobe around town.