In a fast-paced, digital world some children struggle to adapt. Here are 7 traits to prepare kids for the future. This 10-minute brief contains the key insights from the bestselling book Thrivers written by Michelle Borba Ed.D.
Table of contents
- Standard Measures of Achievement
- Things Parents Can Do to Ease Pressure
- How do parents actually identify and help develop those natural talents and strengths in their kids?
- How do identifying and reinforcing strengths, like empathy, help kids cope in the competitive environment?
- Can empathy be taught?
- The role of emotional literacy in teaching empathy and how can parents work on it with their kids?
- Other qualities that set kids up for success that can be nurtured by parents
- Balancing all of those qualities while stressing the importance of other things
Thrivers are different: they flourish in our fast-paced, digital-driven, often uncertain world. Why? Dr. Borba combed scientific studies on resilience, spoke to dozens of researchers/experts in the field, and interviewed more than 100 young people from all walks of life, and she found something surprising: the difference between those who struggle and those who succeed comes down not to grades or test scores, but to seven character traits that set Thrivers apart (and set them up for happiness and greater accomplishment later in life).
These traits, confidence, empathy, self-control, integrity, curiosity, perseverance, and optimism, will allow kids to roll with the punches and succeed in life. And the even better news: these traits can be taught to children at any age. In fact, parents and educations must do so. In Thrivers, Dr. Borba offers practical, actionable ways to develop these traits in children from preschool through high school, showing how to teach kids how to cope today so they can thrive tomorrow.
Standard Measures of Achievement
Well, as a parent who also has over 40 years of experience as a teacher and educational consultant, Borba has never been more worried about today’s kids. While it’s a generation that is more educated, more privileged and has every perceived advantage, kids have also never been more stressed, more burnt out, and more depressed.
Young people today are trying to live up to high expectations for achievement – so think getting good grades and acing exams, which have typically been markers of a kid doing well. But, if you look beyond the good grades, what do you see? And that’s what Borba is doing in Thrivers – looking beyond the so-called measurement of success and into what it means to raise happy and healthy kids who thrive in the real world.
Borba asked teens across the United States in focus groups, “What is it like to be a kid today?” And the answers painted a clear picture of the pressure they’re facing. Many said they had no time for friends, hobbies, or time to just be a kid between all of their schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and social media. It’s a generation worried about meeting expectations and crafting the perfect image instead of a feel-good life. Understandably, they’re lonely and stressed.
Things Parents Can Do to Ease Pressure
Focus on character. Borba explains it like this: kids today exist today in a hyper-competitive environment that pits them against their peers and drives their want of recognition. There’s a constant push for more, which makes it difficult for kids to find where they fit in the world because they’re unintentionally being raised as products without being taught the very things that make us human. Things like coping with stress, working with others, facing mistakes.
So, parents shouldn’t just be teaching their kids to pass tests and make good grades, they should be instilling qualities like empathy, perseverance, and self-confidence to help them navigate the real world.
Borba thinks a great place to start is by nurturing their true talents. According to psychologist Martin Seligman, the key to happiness is self-confidence, and that we flourish by applying our greatest strengths in life. Leaning into our strengths is one of the ways that we build self-confidence.
Adolescence is when the discovery of true talents typically begins and, as parents, helping kids in that process is one of the most important tasks. In the 1985 work of psychologist Benjamin Bloom, Developing Talent in Young People, kids that are successful later in life have one thing in common: parents helped them hone their natural gifts and talents.
In fact, those kids didn’t just see themselves as being good at a particular thing, but the talent actually became a part of their identity. When this happens, children are better able to direct their own development and, as a result, grow in confidence as they improve.
How do parents actually identify and help develop those natural talents and strengths in their kids?
Well, they start by seeing their kids for who they really are. Every child has core assets, which are strengths that align with their values and identity. They can look like personality features, character traits, and talents – things like empathy, kindness, musicality, working well with others.
Identifying those strengths is key, and parents can do that by looking out for common markers. As an example, let’s look at tenacity. If you notice your kid perseveres with a task even when it’s difficult, you’re probably looking at a core asset.
The next step is acknowledging and reinforcing those core assets. Parents can do that through encouragement and praise. Praise should be deserved, of course, but don’t be afraid to be liberal with it. And be as specific as possible when you do so your child knows what it was they did to deserve the praise. This helps them start to identify those core assets and strengths in themselves.
How do identifying and reinforcing strengths, like empathy, help kids cope in the competitive environment?
Empathy, specifically, is a very important learned skill that helps kids thrive. Educationalists have actually linked empathy with better test scores and the development of critical thinking skills. And the Harvard Business Review identified empathy as a key market of being prepared for today’s global job market. It’s clear from the research that empathetic abilities are a critical ingredient to children’s success.
Borba writes that the competitive environment kids are in today has, unfortunately, eroded empathy among young people. In the book, Borba details that several studies have analyzed younger Americans’ empathetic abilities and all reached a worrying conclusion: college-age teens today are significantly less empathetic than their counterparts 30 years ago. On top of the decline in empathy, polling also revealed that levels of stress were higher. Even before the pandemic, one-third of college-aged students said they felt anxious, and one in eight were depressed.
According to Borba, competition is largely to blame. Success today is often measured by grades, acceptance to prestigious colleges, and doing better than peers. Not only do kids feel pressured to “crush their competition” so to speak, they feel like they’re being watched by parents who want to know how they measure up compared to the rest of the class.
Borba explains that in this environment, empathy slips through the cracks. And in its place, you see the rise of a Narcissism Epidemic, which is the title of a 2008 study from psychologists that found the rate of “I’m better than you” thinking shot up by 58 percent among young Americans over the last three decades.
Can empathy be taught?
Borba explores this idea through the lens of something called emotional literacy, which I’ll dive into. But first, I’ll look at the question of whether empathy can be taught or not. Research has revealed that we may overemphasize the importance of genetics when considering people’s abilities to empathize.
In 2018, a paper was published in the Translational Psychiatry journal that revealed just 10 percent of differences between people’s ability to empathize are hardwired. Social psychologist Sara Konrath explains empathy is like a muscle: the more it’s used, the stronger it gets. So, empathy is absolutely a skill that can be taught.
The role of emotional literacy in teaching empathy and how can parents work on it with their kids?
Emotional literacy is the ability to identify and name our and others’ emotions. Borba explains it as learning a shared emotional language, and it’s the foundation of empathetic behavior.
Working on labeling and talking about emotions from an early age is key. The author suggests using clear, descriptive statements when talking about feelings, using specific labels such as ‘happy’ or ‘upset’. And to not shy away from talking about how you feel. Asking lots of questions can help teach emotional literacy. Sometimes, a simple question like, “How do you feel?” is enough.
As your child progresses in understanding emotions and how they present in themselves and others, you can encourage them to talk about how others might feel. Norma Feshbach, a psychology professor, recommends trying different creative techniques like having your kid retell stories from a different character’s perspective, guessing what a friend might want as a gift and why, or acting out situations from someone else’s point of view. Feshbach explains these practices can help kids think about and relate to others’ perspectives.
It’s this encouragement of emotional literacy that works the “empathy muscle” and teaches kids the value and skill of empathy.
Other qualities that set kids up for success that can be nurtured by parents
There are two that go hand in hand: curiosity and creativity. Curiosity is easy to spot in young children as they discover new things, new interests. Over time, that natural sense of curiosity is all but lost.
Curiosity is vital. Many psychologists and educationalists have taken an interest in the power of curiosity because it plays just as important a role as intelligence when it comes to learning outcomes.
As kids get older, priorities like passing standardized tests become more important. As a result, the focus shifts to external rewards, like grades or gold stars, from intrinsic rewards, which is doing things because they’re inherently satisfying.
While external rewards can be motivating, they’re only driving kids to collect rewards, according to psychologist Alfie Kohn. That does little for cultivating curiosity and creativity, which is rewarding in its own right.
Balancing all of those qualities while stressing the importance of other things
Grades absolutely matter. And it’s these characteristics that Borba stresses will actually help your kid go from the competitive mindset of, “I’m better than you,” to an outlook grounded in applying their unique strengths and empathizing with those around them.
Kids can’t escape the not-so-fun or creative task of passing standardized tests. But that’s why it’s so important to provide outlets for their curiosity and creativity. Borba uses the example of the Wright brothers, famous for the invention of the plane. Orville, one of the brothers, said one of the things most in their favor was quote, “growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to pursue intellectual curiosity,” end quote.
And this can easily be done in your home by providing open-ended activities that spark your child’s curiosity and creativity.
The key takeaway from this title is that kids are under more pressure than parents realize, and while good grades are important, it’s the intangible qualities like self-confidence, empathy, curiosity, and creativity that help children experience meaningful and successful lives long after they’re grown.