Michele Borba began her career teaching in a classroom for children with severe learning or emotional disabilities. As she got to know each student, she was guided by one question, “How can I help them shine?”
This work took patience, practice, and curiosity. She paid close attention to the child in front of her – not the child the school file or previous teacher said was in front of her. Take Rick, a first grader who “was always by my side but would never verbalize what he wanted or needed.” Over time, she noticed him doodling on his papers. “Wow,” she whispered to him one day, “you are really good at this.”
“That was the first time I ever saw him smile,” she said. Later, she casually posted his work for others to see, she praised his creativity to other teachers in his earshot, and she helped his parents find an after school art club.
Many years later, Borba got a letter in the mail from Rick – now a professional artist – thanking her for that day she put his picture on the bulletin board. “That was the day I stopped worrying if kids would think I was stupid.”
“We are Raising a Generation of Strivers, Not Thrivers”
Borba, an educational psychologist and character development expert, recently published the book “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.” From her research and field experience, she identifies seven character strengths that help kids and adults flourish across their lifespan: self-confidence, empathy, self-control, integrity, curiosity, perseverance and optimism.
When she visits classrooms around the country – this year over Zoom – teens are telling her that they are running on empty: burnt out and worried about their friends’ mental health. These are hard-working kids, she says, striving to live up to the demands of school, sports, work, family and future college admissions readers. But Borba cautions that striving and thriving are not synonyms.
“Kids are finding it impossible to keep up with our unrealistic expectations of success,” she says. And for that, “adults must accept the blame.”
As we emerge from the pandemic, there’s a lot of talk about “getting back to normal.” But perhaps the old normal isn’t what we should aim for. “If one in five of our kids were struggling with a mental health disorder prior to the pandemic, this crisis has only amplified it. We need to start raising them from the inside out.”
The good news is that none of us are born with these seven traits, says Borba. Children develop them over time, and it helps when adults in their community serve as role models and cheerleaders. For example, by offering Rick empathy, curiosity and optimism about his future, Borba helped him develop the self-confidence and perseverance he needed to pursue something that mattered to him.
Help Them Find Joy and Purpose
It’s easier for kids to persevere, feel optimistic about their future and develop self-confidence when they are engaged in meaningful activities – work that sparks their interest. Kids thrive on purpose, says Borba.
“Thrivers have hobbies,” she says, “They have something they can decompress to.” But when she asks teens, “What are your hobbies?” they often reply, “What’s a hobby? We don’t have enough time for hobbies.” A sense of purpose has been replaced by overwhelming to-do lists.
Rather than filling up children’s time with activities we believe they should do, she suggests parents become observers. What activities seem to ignite their child’s imagination or give them an extra spark of joy? What seems to increase their confidence, reduce their stress, or help them enjoy their own company? “Find out what helps your child be the best version of themselves,” said Borba, and then give them the freedom to pursue those activities. This often requires shelving our own expectations about what they “should” be doing.
One way to help children find their spark is to introduce a variety of new activities, for example: a morning of birdwatching, a knitting class with grandma over Zoom, a martial arts trial class as a family, an origami YouTube tutorial. “When you find something beyond your scope, find them a mentor. It doesn’t have to be pricey – it might be the neighbor next door. We are not partnering with other parents nearly enough.”
In a study of highly skilled mathematicians, athletes, and musicians, psychologist Benjamin Bloom found that adults would initially introduce the activities, “but before long, the child was pulling the parent,” said Borba, with parents offering continued support. The lesson for today’s parents? Periodically step back and ask, ‘Who is doing the pulling?’ And if you are the one always pulling them to put on their soccer cleats before practice, maybe they are telling you something.”
When kids engage in activities they find personally meaningful, it develops an authentic self-confidence, or “that inner, quiet recognition of who I am.” Unlike self-esteem, which is often fed by external validation, self-confidence is that internal joy that says, “I did it.” These activities also build perseverance because it’s easier to take set-backs in stride when you are internally motivated: “Kids learn to say, ‘It’s okay. I’ll keep going. Failure just means I’ve got to find another way through.’ That’s the kind of kid who’s going to make it in today’s uncertain, anxious, fear-based world,” says Borba.
By the time they reach high school, many kids give up on activities and hobbies that have brought them joy, telling researchers that they don’t have time because of other obligations and activities. According to Stanford psychologist William Damon, about 20 percent of teens can be categorized as purposeful. If your child seems to be busy but not happy, Borba recommends sitting down together and looking at the schedule. “Can you cut one thing? Just one thing that isn’t really crucial but will feed in time? When kids find purposeful activities, it moves the stress down and the love up, and that’s glorious.”
Borba says her optimism for the future is rooted in the hundreds of teenagers she interviewed while writing this book. “I can’t tell you the amount of wonderful things kids were doing during COVID, how concerned they were for each other, the simple, ordinary things they were doing to help their friends,” she said. “That’s what gives you hope. Now adults need to step up to the plate, listen to the kids, and give them what they said they need – because here’s what every kid said they needed: ‘If we’re the most stressed out generation on record, somebody better teach us how to cope.’”