Children of the Storm: How Parents and Social Mobility Succeeded in Undermining American Students
Schools are supposed to be America’s engine of social mobility, but they are clearly failing in that function. The United States ranks twenty-first of twenty-six Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in high school graduation rates. In New York City, 72 percent of African-American boys fail to graduate. Of those students who make it to college—rich, poor, black and white—40 percent need remedial classes. Teachers, administrators, parents, and state and federal policies have all been blamed for these dismal results. Charles Murray of the conservative American Enterprise Institute has even blamed the children themselves for their lack of aptitude.
In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, New York Times journalist Paul Tough presents an alternative explanation for why American students do so poorly. Like Murray, he attributes the problem to the children themselves, but he also maintains that most are born with the cognitive abilities to succeed. What they lack is motivation and the related qualities of persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, self-confidence and “grit”—the willingness to sacrifice immediate pleasures for longer-term goals. What holds back many poor children, and some rich ones, are the toxic, brain-distorting effects of stressful childhood experiences. Child abuse, separation from or neglect by parents, exposure to violence, and living with a mentally ill or drug-addicted relative all affect the developing brain and personality. During early childhood, the brain doesn’t merely grow bigger, like the other organs; it molds itself to the perceived environment by creating and destroying billions of neurons in different brain regions. The brain of a stressed-out child becomes hyper-alert to threat, and extremely poor at planning and organizing tasks, delaying gratification and controlling emotion—the very abilities needed to spend long hours in a library, pay attention to a boring lecture, plan and carry out complex activities, and believe that hard work will pay off in the future. This may help explain why some children find it difficult to concentrate, are angered easily, become depressed and discouraged over minor failures, and privilege instant gratification over longer-term rewards. Stress may even help to explain why some children are attracted to drug abuse, as if they were medicating themselves to tame the neurochemical storm in their heads.