Kids today face a ton of challenges. A global pandemic. Skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety. Extraordinary pressure to excel at school and in sports. The list goes on and on. It’s why internationally-renowned educational psychologist Dr. Michele Borba says she’s never been more concerned about this generation of kids. She’s also never been more optimistic. That’s because the skills kids need to be resilient aren’t locked into their DNA; they can be taught by parents and educators. Best of all, kids are never too old, or too young, to learn how. That’s what Dr. Borba’s newest book, Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine, is all about. She’s back with us to explain exactly what a “thriver” is: what special skills do they possess, and what makes them so resilient? Dr. Borba shares simple, practical, science-backed ways parents and educators can teach these skills to children of all ages today – so that they can handle the challenges of tomorrow.
Listen to this episode to learn:
For more information, visit https://www.micheleborba.com/.
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, and in the world we're living in, nothing is harder than seeing your child struggle to thrive in it, but here's the good news. The skills kids need to thrive can be taught and it's never too late or early to start. Educational psychologist Dr. Michele Borba is back on the podcast to tell us how.
Over an impressive 40 year career, she's raised three sons, worked with thousands of parents, educators, and kids, and written 25 books, including her latest book called Thrivers: The Surprising Reason Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. In this episode, Dr. Borba will explain exactly what a thriver is and how we can teach our kids to become one. Have a listen.
Dr. Borba, welcome back to Equal Parts. We are so happy to have you here again.
Dr. Michele Borba: Thank you. I'm so happy. I love Equal Parts.
Emily Paisner: It's so great to have you here. Something that you've said, and I've heard you say many times that certainly is concerning me is that you have never been more worried about kids than you are today, which is very terrifying for us parents. What's going on? Why are you so worried?
Dr. Michele Borba: Well, listen, we love our kids dearly, don't we? We've raised actually a very smart generation, but the worry factor I have is that we haven't really prepared them for adversity. One in five of our kids were diagnosed with a mental health disorder prior to the pandemic and then came COVID. It just means we're seeing an upsurge in stress and anxiety, but the good news, Emily, is all of that is teachable. Resilience is not locked into kids' DNA, just means we can push reset on parenting and say, "Let's find simple little ways to help our kids thrive," and we can.
Emily Paisner: Speaking of thriving, you just released a new book called Thrivers, where you interviewed more than a hundred young people across all ages across the country. Can you tell us what exactly it means for a child to be a thriver?
Dr. Michele Borba: A thriver just means it's the kid who says, "I got this. I don't need somebody to rescue me from it". They have these protective factors that parents have instilled in them. Now, it isn't an overnight process, Emily, it's a long term along the way from birth to whenever they leave and we say bye-bye, but the child begins to realize "I can do this on my own". They have agency, and that's what a thriver is.
The most important thing I learned from the kids I interviewed is that they said they were missing those skills. They said, "We're really good at test-taking. We're really good at studying, but we don't know the human side of things." That's what the book Thrivers is, is just dozens of simple science fact things we can weave in to our existing parenting. It's not going to take a PhD, another app, or a fancy tutor. It just means us doing everyday simple things to help our kids be resilient and bounce back.
Emily Paisner: You mentioned the human side of things, and I always love to hear stories. What stories really stand out for you in some of those young people that you spoke with?
Dr. Michele Borba: Oh gosh, so many. I think one of them was Natalie. Natalie is 14. She lives in New York and she's just absolutely glorious. I asked Natalie, "How are you doing?" I interviewed her after COVID and during it, and then prior and I said, "You're doing anything to cope?" She says, "Yes, I figured out what works for me". I said, "What is it, Natalie?" She says, "Music. I've always loved music, but I get really stressed with all this COVID stuff. I figured out if I download things onto my playlist, like Mozart, he's really soothing, you know."
I was laughing and then she turns and she goes, "You know, the thing I also discovered is that you guys in your generation have less beats in your music, so I'm using some of your stuff. My favorite one is Elton John and I crack it up. I'm still standing and I start pulsing around the room when I really do a good job," and I'm going, "Oh my gosh, Natalie, you're wonderful." That kind of a thing.
Kids will begin to share simple, ordinary things that they were using as their go tos but they create it into habits. Another kid tells me that it was reading that she turned to. I said, "Well, what helps you in reading?" She says, "I don't know what. You just get lost in the book and you forget about all the other stuff outside in the world that's going on."
I said, "What do you love?" She said, "I get the Christie books". I said, "You got to be kidding me. How did you get into Agatha Christie?" She says, "Oh my mom, she had a whole bunch of extra ones around the house and I didn't have anything else to read so I picked it up, started reading, went to bed and went, 'Wow, that's really good stuff'."
Maybe it's also just leaving a few ideas around the house for kids. The bottom line to this is every kid said they needed something to decompress with and every kid is different. It's finding what works for your child. It doesn't have to be fancy-dancy stuff. It's usually things you already have in your house.
One thing that many parents are doing is creating calm down corners. Just having the kids put bean bag chairs or pillows. Maybe it's books. Maybe it's music. Maybe it's bubble blowers for little kids, but find what works for your kids. Girls say Koosh balls could be very helpful.
You help your child identify their warning signs before they blow or before they get irritable. Like, "You're putting your hands in that little vest, that's your body sign that means you're getting a little stressed," or, "Hey, you're starting to grind your teeth. You know what happens when you grind your teeth? Maybe it means you need to go to that time-in center, not timeout, time-in center so you can just relax a little bit."
Emily Paisner: I can definitely relate to the Koosh ball. Just hearing you say that I can feel it and smell it. They have a really distinct smell. I can feel it and smell it in my head and I have to say it helps me relax too. Michele, you talk about seven character strengths of resilient children. You say that these aren't locked into a kid's DNA. They can be taught. It doesn't matter how old or young the child is.
Dr. Michele Borba: Yes, when I was writing Thrivers and trying to figure out the science of resilience, my main thing is let's do our new toolkit for parents that is based on what research says are the most important traits that help our kids bounce back, but I discovered something, Emily. I'm going to tell you what they are in a minute, but I discovered that not only do they help kids bounce back but there's another plus to them. These are the same seven who are also going to help our kids in peak performers in a classroom and boost mental health.
It starts with confidence where a child begins to have a firm understanding of who I am not what mom or dad want me to be but what are my strengths? If we help our kids develop their strengths, they’re going to be more likely to thrive.
The next one-- I will go through them quickly then we can talk about them a little bit more in-depth. Empathy is number two. Kids who are thrivers have a social confidence level. They have people that they can go to. That's critical. Third is self-control. We talked a little bit about that. That boy, if you don't have that, then you can put the brakes on impulses that stress starts building.
Fourth is integrity, strong moral compass so that you know what you stand for and you don't have to weaver and waver. Fifth is curiosity. These kids have an open mindset so that a problem comes along the way, they know a way around it.
Then comes perseverance. Just stick to it. You don't have to give up and you don't need a trophy and a gold star in order to get to it. The last one is optimism. Hope. All of those can be instilled in every kid and every parent needs those seven. What Thrivers does is give you dozens of ways to instill those in kids.
Emily Paisner: Do you think that one of these strengths is more important than another? If you had to pick just one that a parent could focus on, which one would it be?
Dr. Michele Borba: The most important thing to know is kids don't need all seven. Every parent, take a deep sigh. You don't need all seven but the more you have the better. If I was to choose one, I'd say start with confidence or an understanding of who I am because it's actually one of the simpler ones to begin to do and you have everything in your house already in order to start instilling it in kids.
Emily Paisner: What are some of the really practical ways that parents can teach and nurture these strengths? Can you share some of those ideas with us so that it's easy for parents to understand the small things that they can do that make a big difference?
Dr. Michele Borba: Ordinary things. Let's start with confidence because I just said that's the foundation. Watch your kid and figure out what excites him, what energizes him, what does he want to stick to longer, what is he more eager to do? If that club about art or music or woodworking or whatever it is closes, he gets a little down. Those are the things that actually help him thrive. Watch your child and start helping him recognize "that’s your strength".
Look at your photos around the house. Do you have a photo of your child engaged in that activity so that it will help remind him? Get grandparents involved in it. He's really good at woodworking as a hint or when the Christmas present comes up, there's another thing that you can help him do.
If he doesn't know it, don't worry about it. What you may be wanting to do right now is just introduce hobbies, a family hobby each week, and figure out which hobby each of your kids, because they're all going to be different, is going to be more likely to gravitate toward.
One of the things we discovered is that resilient children have hobbies. They go to those hobbies like Natalie. She used music. Another kid used Agatha Christie books. What does your child go to in order to help decompress? That's confidence.
Emily Paisner: I love that idea of the family hobbies because I think we're always trying to figure out what will help us to decompress.
Dr. Michele Borba: When I interviewed the kids, I asked them. "What are your hobbies? " I was a little concerned that more and more kids looked at me dumbfounded, like, "What's a hobby? Who's got time to do a hobby?"
The other simple little thing is once you know what your child's go-to hobby is that really does help him in a healthy way decompress, carve time for it. Just carve it in, look at your kid's schedule. Is there one thing he can just stop doing so that he can weave in that time to help him figure out who I am? That's how you bring out your child's best side.
Emily Paisner: Just to be perfectly clear, those hobbies aren't social media and video games, right?
Dr. Michele Borba: Right. Remember that term "healthy". Watch your child when he's doing the activity, and are you seeing a change in the child's behavior? Hobbies that are strength-oriented, that build confidence. Yes, maybe he's great at social media but the other thing is are you seeing him become more galvanized, more rejuvenated, more decompressed as a result of it?
I would worry about research is saying that because of social media and all this COVID stuff, our kids are becoming more and more addicted to it. Now is the time, parent, to rebuild the-- Here's our limits, and the most important limit is, unless the child is doing it with someone or you can see someone on the other end of the screen, it's not healthy.
That comes to, strength number two is empathy. Empathy needs face-to-face connection. We've been social distanced for an entire year. What's happening is many of our kids are becoming a little more anxious because they're not with the friends that they crave. Too often, kids say they're more comfortable texting than talking so it's not helping them exercise their social skills.
Emily Paisner: Yes, and I think there is a point to be made here that kids are having a hard time and having a lot of anxiety about re-entry into the world if you will, whether that's back into school and the classroom, whether that's back out on the field with their teams. Is there anything we can do to help with these re-entry?
Dr. Michele Borba: Yes, real easy things. Once again, the easier things are the better things anyway. 70% of parents in a recent poll said that was their biggest concern. Their kids were more anxious because, "How are my friends going to like me? Who's it am I going to sit next to? Who's going to say hello to me?"
What we do know about children who are more popular is they use three things, three simple skills that you can reinforce at home. Number one is they say "hello". When you go to the supermarket, when you're walking down the street, just wave to other kids, wave, you model it, wave, say hello, and do it a little more often so your kid gets into the habit of saying "hello".
The second thing that well-liked kids do is they encourage others. Get out those chutes and ladders games, play chess, play monopoly but also make it a rule that as you're playing the game, we have to encourage each other or do a high five or a thumbs up or say "good job", because that'll get your kid into the spirit of encouraging like they used to do out on the old soccer fields with one another.
The third thing is they use eye contact. They have to start using eye contact. You may not be able to smile when you're wearing a mask but your eyes can smile. By the way, a shy child, they have a tough time with eye contact. They are more likely to look down. A hint is, look at the color of the talker's eyes or just look at the spot between your friend's nose, right there at the top. That'll help you hold your head up.
There's a payoff, Emily, kids who hold their head up, actually look stronger and more confident, that comes to the first trait, so they're more likely to be taken seriously by their friends. Three simple things you can be doing right now and you can also do it in Zoom. "Hey, let's Zoom grandma," but watch her face and you'll know when it's time to say goodbye.
You can also help your kids learn to be primed with feelings because the gateway to empathy is knowing feelings, so just start talking feelings more naturally at home. "Are you frustrated? Do you think grandma's tired. How do you think dad's going to feel when he walks in the door?" Because that's also going to help your children be able to read and resonate with their friends back in the real world when it comes back to the so-called normal.
Emily Paisner: You mentioned earlier that there's a connection between being a thriver and academic performance. Can you share some tips on how to encourage a growth mindset rather than just focusing on getting the A?
Dr. Michele Borba: Yes. That growth mindset is strength number six, which is perseverance, highly correlated to science. Which kids are more likely to endure when their spelling bee gets through westpoint? What they discovered is it's not the A that does it, it's perseverance and perseverance we can instill, it's not DNA law.
The single most important thing that we now know from science is how we praise our children. Too often, says the research, we praise the end product, what you get. That's great to be able to acknowledge, "Yes, you got a hundred percent", but you're far more likely to stretch perseverance if you emphasize effort. "I know it's hard but you're hanging in there."
When your kid says, "I can't do it." "Well, you can't do it yet, sweetie pie, so keep going on it." What you're really doing is helping your child realize that success is really a matter of how hard, "Yes, just hang in there and keep working harder at it". You can also say, "Yesterday you were here, you got three right. Well, if you keep working on it today, you'll get four right."
Think of it as a rubber band. Your goal with the right expectations for a growth mindset is to gently stretch your child from where they are, keep stretching them, but don't snap them. If you snap them you snap the spirit and there goes his ability to have confidence which is strength number one. Are you noticing something? I hope you do that these strengths have an amplifier effect. If you have confidence, and now you pair it with perseverance, you’re more likely to thrive. You have confidence and you also have what we just talked about with empathy and perseverance, it amplifies it even more.
By the way, they've done some work across the world right now on children who are getting through this pandemic better. China just released a study and they said kids who had growth mindset who actually are coming out healthier at the bottom line and they're thriving better. All of this is science fact simple ways. Let's just start praising our kids for, "Yes, the harder you work, the better you'll get so just keep working on it, sweetie."
Emily Paisner: Something else I would love to dissect a little bit with you is the differences between girls and boys and what they need in order to thrive. I know you've done decades of research and had thousands of conversations. I'd love to hear from you if you've discovered any major differences there.
Dr. Michele Borba: Well, as a mother of three boys, I will say there are differences. The first one is "I can't figure out how to get a girl" so that could be another podcast. Another one is we would do something really interesting as parents, and we're all going to feel guilty as soon as I say this because no matter what we do, we're guilty. We all do it so just buy into this. From the age of two, we do one thing differently with our girls than our boys. We talked feelings far more with our daughters, already at age two, says Yale.
One thing we do shortchange our boys with is opportunities to just learn feelings and talk about it naturally. Watch the movie inside out or read the book Wonder or please keep reading or listen to. It doesn't have to be reading, it could be listening to, on tapes, Harry Potter. As you're reading, please start talking feelings, "How would you feel if that happened to you? What would you need in order to feel better?" Boost empathy as well as a growth mindset as well as just hanging in there with perseverance.
Our girls say one little thing that we do wrong for them and that is we don't give them enough leadership opportunities. They say if we don't help them lead by the time they leave 5th grade-- This is a girl’s scout study. They already are shortchanged and leading doesn't mean becoming the student body president. It means, "Hey, would you be in charge of your sister for just a minute, sweetie?" Or, "Hey, here's a little group that's coming to the house, can you just be in charge of the four of you what you're going to play first?"
Just giving kids opportunities seems to be what they need so they can see themselves as the leader. That goes back to confidence. When you have that identity, that's a positive identity of who I am, it helps you be more likely to step in and do the right thing or just lead and have that confidence level amplified.
Emily Paisner: Even though we started this conversation about how worried you are about kids today, I am feeling more optimistic and encouraged as this conversation has gone on that our kids are going to be okay. I think you'd agree with that. Given that optimism, what's one piece of advice that you'd want to leave our listeners with today?
Dr. Michele Borba: We all need to be more intentional about helping our kids thrive. The potential is there, we do know it. We do have the science that says this stuff is teachable. It is a different, different, different world. If it's not a pandemic, who knows what's coming down the pipe next week? We need to prepare our kids for uncertainty. The simplest thing on changing parenting is just weave it into your agenda and say "I'm going to help my child learn to thrive".
It's a lot easier than you think. It just means we need a tool kit. I hope you realize that the whole book on thrivers is simple, simple activities. Every activity is age-related. "Here's what to do with little ones. Here's what to do with bigger ones." Everything is science-driven. If we do this and we do it right, Emily, every other generation has had a negative nickname. That's the narcissistic generation. That's the me-too generation. This generation is going to be the ones that walks across the stage at graduation day and we're going to say, "That's generation Thrivers".
Emily Paisner: You are a gem, Michele. You are an absolute gem. I love having you on. You just talked about generation Thrivers and I think that's a perfect segue into letting our listeners know where they can find your latest book and other work that you've done.
Dr. Michele Borba: Oh, thank you. My website's Michele Borba. I'm a one L Michele and my last name Borba rhymes was Zorba, so there you go. My website has dozens of free downloads. In fact, it also has a core asset survey that you can figure out what are your kids' strengths? Just download it and start figuring it out.
Right now, the best way to get Thrivers is on Amazon. It's at a 40% discount. I don't know how long that's going to last, but many parents are picking it up and they're starting book clubs. That's what we need to do. Just start talking with one other like-minded parent, because we're trying to do this stuff ourselves all alone, and it's lonely as a mom. It's lonely as a dad. Get the grandparents involved and what we'll realize is that this is a lot easier because all we need to do is weave it in and there's lots of ways to do it.
Emily Paisner: Thanks so much for breaking this down for us, Michele. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.
Dr. Michele Borba: Thank you.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
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