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.
The science is still fuzzy, but some researchers using brain imaging and hormonal tests have detected the effects of childhood stress on the growth of those brain regions involved in anxiety, concentration and short-term memory. Equally striking are the more easily measured effects of maternal separation and other traumas on the brains of baby mice and monkeys and their subsequent behavior as adult animals. Such animals perform poorly on memory tests, exhibit behaviors suggestive of anxiety and depression, and are frequently rejected by their fellow animals.
A major cause of stress in children appears to be stress in their parents. Beginning in the 1960s, child psychologists such as John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main showed that some mothers—often those who were themselves abused or depressed—fail to behave in warm, sensitive, responsive ways to their small children. In turn, these children develop anxious or irritable social styles. Ordinarily, toddlers will scramble to their mothers after a brief separation, but a child with what psychologists call “insecure attachment” might treat his or her mother with indifference when she returns, or circle around her as if undecided about whether to approach or flee. These behaviors appear to be markers for early childhood stress and predict what that child will be like decades later. In one long-term study of roughly 200 children born into poverty in Minnesota, the quality of the mother-child relationship during the first three and a half years of life strongly predicted whether the child would drop out of high school, abuse drugs, succumb to mental illness or end up behind bars by age 19. Genes have little to do with it. Some children are born fussy and difficult, and this has long been hypothesized to determine their likelihood of success in life; but the Minnesota researchers measured the temperaments of the children right after birth, using standard techniques developed in the 1950s and still in use today. They found that inborn characteristics such as calmness, fearfulness, infantile aggression and so on failed to predict the children’s long-term educational or behavioral outcomes. Since then, genes associated with behavior problems have been discovered, but they appear to be expressed only in children who experienced abuse or neglect early on.