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Paul Tough, author of the new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. (Gordon M. Grant for the Globe and Mail)
Paul Tough, author of the new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. (Gordon M. Grant for the Globe and Mail)

Why kids need to fail to succeed in school Add to ...

That’s very new in a world where we’ve raised kids based on the self-esteem movement. So how do you teach grit? Can you?

I think you can. There’s not yet a clear path, but it seems like there are a few things that help. The main one is helping kids learn how to manage failure and adversity. That involves two things: One is just making sure they actually have some failure and adversity in their lives. Especially for high-achieving, high-income kids, that’s often what’s missing.

These kids are so overly protected that they don’t have the opportunity to overcome setbacks. It’s also giving them that experience in a setting that lets them not just be disappointed and hurt by failure, but learn from it.

I also spent a lot of time in some really poor neighbourhoods in American cities. In those neighbourhoods, there’s no absence of failure or adversity. These kids confront it all the time. But some of them are just beaten down by it. So it’s not simply the volume of failure in your life – it’s giving kids an opportunity to fail productively, to grow and learn from it.

 

You’re really talking about two ends of the socio-economic spectrum. So tell me a little bit more about why failure – productive failure – is so important to character development.

 

There is this study that came out recently from a few psychologists that talks about the number of adverse experiences kids have growing up. This not really serious adversity, just run-of-the-mill setbacks. What’s interesting is that the kids who experience more of those, generally, find that their psychological well-being goes down – but so do kids who experience no adversity.

Where I saw this most clearly, I think, was in a chess class I spent a lot of time following at a fairly low-income school in Brooklyn. The teacher, Elizabeth Spiegel, has figured out that chess is the perfect laboratory for learning how to manage failure, because in chess you fail all the time. No matter how good you are, you lose about half your games. And even when you win, you’re making terrible mistakes all the time. So you have to figure out a strategy for dealing with failure.

So there are kids who, when they try to play chess and start to fail, they just decide, “Oh, I don’t really care about chess. I’m losing too much.” And there are those who beat themselves up about it. Neither group does all that well. But a third group, which Ms. Spiegel tries to develop, is made up of kids who take their failures very seriously but divorce themselves from it a little bit; they say, “Okay, let me actually analyze the mistakes that I made: What can I do differently next time?”

There’s something about that process that actually echoes certain types of therapy. Once you start talking about therapy with kids, I think it makes everybody a little bit anxious. But I’m not talking about lying on a couch and talking about your parents. I’m talking about cognitive therapies that let you look at your own processes and say, “Okay, what are the mistakes I keep making and what can I do differently?”

 

Your writing on these chess kids is absolutely gripping. First of all, this teacher takes kids from low-income, low-achieving environments and turns them into high-performance players who can take on anybody in the United States. But she also doesn’t coddle them. She’s very, very tough. She bawls the kids out. She’ll say, “You played that too fast,” or ‘You made a stupid mistake. Why are you still making that stupid mistake?” What does that tell us about how we’ve gone wrong coaching kids to cope with adversity?

 

I think there is a real difference between developing self-esteem and developing character, and in the past few decades we’ve become confused about that. Yes, if you want to develop kids’ self-esteem, the best way to do it is to praise everything they do and make excuses for their failures.

But if you want to develop their character, you do almost the opposite: You let them fail and don’t hide their failures from them or from anybody else – not to make them feel lousy about themselves, but to give them the tools to succeed next time.

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