Book Review

Is fostering 'character' the secret to creating confident, determined children?

Reviewed by Geraldine Brennan

Published: January 27, 2013

Anxious parents drawn to this US bestseller by the title will find themselves taking a back-row seat in classrooms full of children far more disadvantaged than their own and learning something useful in the process. Paul Tough's book is not the straightforward "grow clever children" manual it appears to be. The author has followed some of urban America's poorest young people through their secondary school careers over some years, tracking their rocky road towards higher education and revealing how their teachers are compensating for the missing investment in their early years by fostering what Tough sums up as "character". The components of character include resilience, self‑control, optimism and (Tough's favourite) grit. And he argues that it helps young people absorb and act on criticism, overcome setbacks and meet frustration and obstacles with renewed determination. Those who manage to graduate from high school despite poverty and an absence of supportive role models have to have more reserves of character than their socially cushioned peers. Tough's tour of institutions that seek to inject character range from the Knowledge is Power Programme (Kipp) and junior high in the South Bronx to the well-heeled New York suburban Riverdale campus, where many parents hamper their child's character growth with too much cosseting. The highlight is the glimpse he affords us into the lives of the gifted, success-hungry chess players of IS 318, a low-income public school in Brooklyn, and the passionate, confrontational teacher who forces them to replay and learn from their wrong moves.

The UK's Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (Seal) framework, introduced in state primary and secondary schools in 2007, is the closest we have come to structured attempts to teach character. The Seal values – self-awareness, managing feelings, motivation, empathy and social skills – are in the same ballpark as Tough's character traits. But grit is something we have to teach our kids to pack with their PE kits or their chess pieces.
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