Sure. It’s definitely crossed my mind. It relates to this bigger question about how to talk about poverty and family that goes back to the Moynihan Report [of the 1960s]. From a political point of view, I definitely understand that anxiety and why it’s touchy to talk about things in this way. And maybe this is just a luxury I have as a journalist, but for me the right thing to do is to be as accurate and clear as possible about what the real impacts are on kids. In the end, I think the message I’m trying to give in the book is that family environments are incredibly important in kids’ success. But that in no way means we don’t have a role to play. That’s not the end of the story. It’s the beginning of the story, because it just doesn’t make sense to say that, “OK, if you’re coming from a bad family environment, that’s your problem.” That’s just not right. We can’t possibly hold kids responsible for the family environment they grow up in. It’s nonsensical. That’s a slightly more complex argument than saying, “Everyone needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps” or, ”People in these neighborhoods are just victims.” But I think it’s not that complicated, and I think my job is just to be as clear as I can in saying that. I really do believe that, if we can get beyond that sort of simplistic political divide into a somewhat more complex and, I think, accurate vision of what’s really going on for kids in poor neighborhoods, we will come up with better solutions. That may be naïve. I may be overly hopeful about that, but I tend to think that it’s true. It’s worth it to have that conversation even if it’s uncomfortable at times.
One of the things that’s different about this [second] book is that it’s not just about kids in low-income communities. It mostly is, but I think I’m trying to [incorporate] my own experiences and [those of] private school kids and affluent kids. My hope is that it gives people a way to see these issues as not just an isolated question for someone else’s kids over there. This was part of my sense of how people read “Whatever It Takes,” that people cared about it but that people who weren’t in Harlem or in other low-income communities, they were looking at it as something that was distant. So part of what I was trying to do in “How Children Succeed” was just show what was quite literally true for me—how this research and reporting I was doing, including with kids in poverty, was very relevant to what I thought about my own son. I think there’s a powerful message there, that it’s very clear from the science that every kid needs the same thing and that some kids are getting that help and some kids aren’t. There’s something, I think, about that idea that pushes us in other directions as we think about policy.
Is there any reason to think that children who have had experience dealing with conflict and struggle might find it a little easier to develop the types of noncognitive skills you highlight in the book? Few people would welcome difficulty. And we certainly don't wish it upon children. But I wonder if the ideas you present offer a way for kids who have grown up under very trying circumstances to leverage what they've already survived so that they can move forward.
Yes, I think that’s true, to a great extent. I do think we need to be very cautious, when talking about notions like “grit” and “resilience,” not to suggest or imply that there’s something automatically character-building about growing up in deep disadvantage. For most kids, growing up in the midst of violence or instability or chaos is a profoundly negative experience, one that often causes damage that can last a lifetime. But there’s evidence in the psychological literature (and in the biographies of many great leaders) that experiencing moderate amounts of hardship growing up can help build character strengths, or noncognitive skills, especially when the child has a close, supportive relationship with a parent or other caregiver to help guide him or her through that hardship.