What parents can do to help kids thrive

A new book highlights seven teachable skills that distinguish kids who do well from those who don't.

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

For today’s #ParentExpertQ&A, I was very excited to interview educational psychologist Michele Borba about her wonderful new book Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. I’ve always felt a connection with Michele, not least because we share the same publisher (Putnam) and the same amazing editor (Michelle Howry). And, when I read Thrivers, I discovered that it shares some themes in common with my book coming out next month, How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes. I asked Michele about her book and some of the surprising insights I learned from it.

What inspired you to write Thrivers?

The number one reason was my dad. All I knew about my dad was that he was a successful human being who was a superintendent and a writer and married my mom. I never knew about his childhood. But there was a moment once when I came home from college and saw him holding up a Newsweek magazine. It had three babies on the cover and said that the first three years make or break a child’s chances of succeeding. And my dad said, “Michelle, don't buy into this, because I'd be dead today if this was true.”

Basically, he was raised in an extremely poverty stricken environment. But the nuns taught him empathy; the neighbor next door, when he was released, taught him perseverance. I realized then that resilient kids are made, not born. So I went back to UC Davis and changed my major. I became a special ed teacher and I saw the same darned thing: Some kids struggle and others shine. I saw that there was a real commonality — that children who learned protective skills and factors that helped them bounce back, who had caring champions in their life, they’ve got an edge. And that's what we may be failing to realize in our parenting, that we make a lot bigger difference than we think. Understanding my dad was the proof that resilience is teachable.

One thing you point out in Thrivers is that younger siblings are often more creative and curious and resilient than older siblings. Can you talk a bit about why this is and what lessons parents can learn from it?

The biggest shock to every parent out there is we actually don't treat our kids the same. We swear we do, but we don’t, and kids know it. We're always stricter with our oldest. And then we become more and more lax. So what happens is the younger sibling becomes far freer, and actually more creative, because we allow more open-endedness. They usually are able to handle boredom a little better, they enjoy their own company a little better. And when a challenge comes, they're not dumbfounded by it — they find a way around it and through it.

This is a lesson we can learn as parents — we want to give all kids what we give to younger kids. A little more agency, a little more control. The commonality that I've seen in all thrivers is they have agency — they they've got this “I got this” kind of an attitude, and creativity. It is going to be an uncertain world, and rigidness is not going to help. One of the things that a creative child is able to do is handle uncertainty, because they love it. They love the possibilities of “well, that didn't work; now what can I do?”

You also point out in the book that kids today are more stressed than ever before, and that this stress is detrimental. What can parents do to help kids manage their stress and other negative emotions?

Give your kids a repertoire of strategies and figure out which one works for the kid — not which one works for you. Then find ways to keep practicing it over and over again, until it becomes a habit that they can do without you. It's got to be stuff they can do anywhere.

The best one I ever learned was from working on Army bases overseas. First, start helping your kid identify his stress signs. Often, we wait until the meltdown and then we say “calm down,” and it doesn't do anything. So watch to see what your kid’s stress signs look like, because they're going to be different for everybody. Then, start pointing them out to your kid, like, “you grind your teeth” or “your hands are in a fist” or “you start being a little clingy and go get your teddy bear.”

The second thing is to teach them to immediately say, when they notice their stress signs, a term like “breathe” or “calm down” or “just relax.” And then you can have them do a one-two breath — deep from your abdomen, like you're riding up an elevator, real deep flow going up, up, up, then hold it, and then slowly let it out. So the exhale is twice as long as the inhale. That's actually the fastest way to relax.

I loved your chapter on teaching integrity — especially the anecdote you shared about Mia Dunn, the girl with the strong moral compass, who said that she had grown up in a family that highlighted honesty as the most important thing, and who talked about honesty every single day. What do you think parents should be doing to foster integrity in kids that they’re not already doing?

Be intentional about it. We're so inundated with everything else that's going on in children's lives that we don't push pause to ask, “what kind of character traits do I want to instill in my child?” Or “what are the key two traits I hope that I see in my child 40 years from now?” But asking that will dramatically change your parenting because you'll find simple little ways to weave it in, and to keep going over it.

Also, we need to explain the “why” factor. Our kids are more likely to buy into it if they understand why you’re so passionate about wanting them to be respectful. “You keep telling me to say please, but why?” Also, look for examples. It could be Great Aunt Hattie, or it could be Rosa Parks — but start pointing out other people who emulate the traits you want to see, to the point where your child can then say, “Mom, look at her. She's really being truthful, just like you're telling us to be.”

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