While today’s kids are smart, driven, and ambitious, they’re also more likely to be anxious, stressed, depressed, and even more suicidal than any previous generation. So, what’s gone wrong? Put simply, we’ve raised strivers – high-achievers who push for accolade after accolade – and forgotten that there’s more to success and happiness than just acing your exams. So says Michele Borba in her book - 'Thrivers. The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Other Shine', published in 2021.
Her book explore ways in which we can rethink our approach to parenting and have happier, more relaxed children for it.
The three most powerful points I took from the book were;
We need to teach kids more than how to pass exams. If you want happy kids, you have to nurture their true talents.
Teaching kids “emotional literacy” makes them more empathetic.
Curiosity and creativity decline as kids get older and therefore, curiosity can be encouraged at home.
We need to teach kids more than how to pass exams.
What is it like to be a kid today? That’s exactly the question the author asked tweens and teens across the United States in a series of focus groups. Unfortunately, their answers paint a picture of a generation in crisis.
According to them, there’s no time for friends, hobbies, or just being a kid between schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and social media. They spend less time hanging out with one another and more time cultivating a picture-perfect version of themselves online. Expectations are sky-high and they’re worried about failing to meet them. In short, they’re lonely and stressed.
During one focus group, the author talked to middle-school students in Boston. A boy named Aiden listened thoughtfully as his classmates chatted about their lives. When he finally spoke, he pointed at a game lying on a nearby table with an incomplete wooden puzzle on its cover. “That puzzle is us,” he said: “We’re trying to fit into the world but can’t because we’re missing pieces.”
But, which pieces are missing? Well, look at the situation from these kids’ point of view. They exist in a hyper-competitive environment where success is all about striving for more: better grades, greater accolades, more likes on social media. Whatever the achievement, it’s always linked to a struggle for recognition that pits children against their peers. No wonder kids are stressed!
Unsurprisingly, lots of adolescents feel the same way as Aiden – that kids are being raised to be “products” and the things that make us human just aren’t being taught. Things like how to be a person, or get along with others, handle mistakes, and cope with stress.
The missing piece, it turns out, is character – that bundle of qualities like self-confidence, perseverance, empathy, and creativity which allows us to navigate the setbacks and uncertainties of the adult world. If we’re only teaching our kids to strive and pass exams, we’re setting them up for a fall once they enter the world. That’s the last thing we want. The goal, after all, isn’t to create a generation of high-achievers who burn out before they’re even eligible to vote – it’s to foster healthy, happy people.
If you want happy kids, you have to nurture their true talents.
In his book Authentic Happiness, the American psychologist Martin Seligman argues that the key to happiness is self-confidence. Seligman believes that we only flourish when we apply our greatest strengths at work, play, and in relationships. Doing things that speak to our strengths motivates us to improve, which in turn brings success and self-confidence. That’s a recipe for happiness. But before that can happen, we have to discover our strengths.
Typically, this discovery begins in adolescence. And that’s where you come into the picture. Helping your kids in this process is one of your most important jobs as a parent. Talented young people who use their gifts to achieve success later in life usually have one thing in common: their parents helped them identify and hone their talents. That’s the conclusion psychologist Benjamin Bloom reaches in his influential 1985 work, Developing Talent in Young People.
Rather than thinking of themselves as people who happen to be good at swimming or solving equations, they see themselves as athletes or mathematicians. In other words, their talents are part of their identities. Once this happens, kids begin directing their own development. As they improve, they grow more confident – a recipe for happiness.
Today’s adolescents are missing one of the vital ingredients that makes this recipe work: time. As tweens and teens emphasize in the author’s focus groups, their days are filled with schoolwork, sports, music lessons, tutoring, and homework, and they’re expected to excel in everything they do.
That’s not just an unrealistic expectation – it also means they don’t have the time to focus on the things they’re truly passionate about. And the result? They neglect these activities and miss out on the chance to improve and gain self-confidence.
Take the 13-year-old girl from New York who told the author that she knew she was smart and that her parents loved her but she still didn’t feel good about herself. All her commitments were keeping her from practicing the violin – her greatest strength. The best day of her life, she said, was the day her father let her drop a couple of activities to free up more time for music. As she put it, “I’ve never been happier because I’m doing what I love.”
Now that you’ve learned why it’s so important to help children discover their true talents, it’s time to find out how you can help them do that.
It’s time to start seeing your kids for who they really are.
The thing is, conventional markers of achievement, like grades, do matter. But, as we’ve seen, pushing kids to focus on nothing else is downright counterproductive. So let’s shift the emphasis. Let’s help our kids thrive. Thriving is all about helping them develop their true strengths. Not the strengths we wish they had or see in ourselves, but the strengths they actually possess.
All children have core assets – the strengths that align most closely with their values and identity.
These come in all shapes and sizes. Personality features like friendliness and working well with others are core assets. So are character traits like empathy, grit, and kindness. Talents such as musicality, sporting ability, and inventiveness are also core assets.
Identifying these strengths is key, but how do you do that? Well, you can look out for some common markers.
First off, tenacity. If your child is determined to do something and perseveres even when the task gets tricky, there’s a good chance you’re looking at a core asset. Eagerness – a willingness to do something without being prompted – and tone are also good markers. If she talks about something possessively as “my thing” or with obvious pride and joy, it’s probably a core asset.
Identification is the first step. The next thing you’ll want to do is acknowledge and reinforce these core assets. Praise should be deserved, of course, but be liberal with it – it’s what helps kids recognize their gifts and work hard to improve.
Be as specific as you can so your child knows what it is she did to deserve this praise. Statements like “You’re patient and always wait your turn without getting flustered” or “You’re kind – I noticed how you asked our elderly neighbor if she needed help” are good examples. You can also use earshot praise. Let your kid overhear you praising them – for example, by telling your spouse that you can’t wait for him to see your daughter’s drawings and how impressed you are with her artistic ability.
Whatever core assets you’ve identified, continue praising these strengths until your child identifies them in herself. “Look, I’m an artist!” are the magic words you’re looking for.
Competition has eroded empathy among young people.
Empathy is often reduced to the ability to feel someone else’s pain, but there’s more to it than that. In fact, empathy has three distinctive components. Sharing someone else’s feelings is one of them. Call it affective empathy. Then there’s behavioral empathy – acting compassionately out of empathetic concern. And finally, cognitive empathy is about understanding how and why other people come to hold the views that they do.
These interlinked skills are critical to our children’s success. Take it from educationalists, who link empathy with better test scores and the development of critical thinking. Or the Harvard Business Review, which identifies it as a key marker of preparation for today’s global job market. There’s just one problem – empathy is in decline.
Dozens of studies have analyzed young Americans’ ability to empathize. Worryingly, they all reach a similar conclusion: today’s college-age teens are much less empathetic than their counterparts were 30 years ago. Polling also suggests that the decline of empathy has been accompanied by rising stress. Even before the COVID pandemic, around one-third of college students reported that they frequently felt anxious, while one in eight said they were depressed.
What’s to blame for these developments? Competition. Take high-stakes testing for example. Success, which is measured in offers from prestigious colleges, is all about being better than others, starting with your classmates. In the words of one 14-year-old, it’s hard to build relationships when “friends are your competition.”
New trends, like posting grades online, add to the pressure. Adolescents aren’t just locked into competition with their peers – they also feel like they’re “under surveillance” from comparison-happy parents. As Sara, a 16-year-old from Texas, puts it, “I take my first-period test and by third period my mom is texting to ask if my friends scored better.”
Needless to say, this isn’t a great way of making kids empathetic. Small wonder, then, that psychologists talk about a Narcissism Epidemic – the title of a 2008 study which suggested that rates of this “I’m better than you” condition have rocketed by 58 percent among young Americans over the last three decades.
It’s our job to help our kids navigate this ultra-competitive school system, and there’s no better way of doing that than boosting their empathy skills early on. So, let’s find out how.
Teaching kids “emotional literacy” makes them more empathetic.
Can empathy be learned, or is it locked into an uncrackable genetic code? Recent research suggests that we often overstate the importance of genetics when we think about this skill. A 2018 paper published in the journal Translational Psychiatry shows that just 10 percent of differences between people’s abilities to empathize are hardwired. So what accounts for the remaining 90 percent?
Empathy, social psychologist Sara Konrath explains, is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets. That’s why studies consistently show that the most empathetic people are women in their late fifties and sixties. Put simply, they’ve had a lot of practice. The good news, then, is that empathy can be taught. The trick is starting early.
Seeing the world through others’ eyes starts with learning a shared emotional language. Think of regular language. Children learn that everyone has to call a cat a “cat” and a house a “house” if they want to understand each other. It’s the same with feelings. Empathy is all about understanding gestures, postures, and expressions which have commonly accepted meanings. Learning that, say, frowns express anger or smiles symbolize happiness is the first step toward emotional literacy, the foundation of empathetic behavior. You have to interpret feelings correctly before you can console a sad person with a hug.
Labeling and discussing emotions from an early age is vital. Use clear, descriptive statements like, “Oh, you’re happy!” or “You seem upset!” Don’t forget to talk about how you feel, either. If you’re short-tempered, explain that you’re irritable because you slept badly. Ask lots of questions, too. Sometimes a simple “How do you feel?” is enough; you can also try something more complex, like asking your child to rate how anxious they feel on a scale of one to ten.
Once they’ve gotten the hang of the basics, encourage your kid to talk about how others might feel. Psychology professor Norma Feshbach recommends techniques like retelling stories from different characters’ perspectives, acting out situations from classmates’ points of view, and guessing what a peer might want as a gift, and why. As Feshbach notes, these exercises boost the “thinking side” of empathy, helping children recognize and relate to the perspectives of others.
Curiosity and creativity decline as kids get older.
Your daughter discovers a new fact about dinosaurs. Your son visits a museum and returns home fascinated by the history of aviation. Suddenly, they want to know more! This is curiosity, or the recognition, pursuit, and desire to openly explore novel things openly. Psychologists and educationalists have long taken an interest in curiosity. Why? Because curiosity is just as important as intelligence when it comes to learning outcomes.
Curiosity is a vital character strength. But unfortunately, it’s another area in which we’re failing our kids.
Toddlers are creative geniuses. Hand a two-year-old a wooden bowl and a plastic spoon and she’s a musician. Give her chalk and paper and she’s an artist. Words like “No,” “Can’t,” or “Won’t” are unknown. Her mind is filled with wonder and a desire to explore and experiment.
Slowly but surely, kids lose their natural curiosity. As Picasso famously put it, every child is an artist; the challenge is to remain an artist as you grow up. Zoom out and that challenge starts to look pretty daunting. Consider a study by American scientist George Land and his team of NASA researchers. Between the mid-1960s and the mid-1990s, Land tracked 1,600 children from their birth to the age of 31 and analyzed their creativity at regular intervals.
At age five, 98 percent of those kids scored at the creative genius level. By age ten, just 30 percent of these children scored at the same level. By the time they hit 31, that number had fallen to just 2 percent. In other words, almost every kid had unlearned their natural curiosity – the driver of creativity.
What causes this drop-off? There are a couple of answers. As kids get older, passing standardized tests becomes more important. That leaves less time for risky, uncertain, and open-ended experimentation. As this happens, the emphasis shifts from intrinsic rewards – doing things because they’re inherently interesting and satisfying – to external rewards like gold stars and, eventually, college places.
Now, as psychologist Alfie Kohn notes, external rewards do motivate people. The problem is that they simply motivate them to collect rewards. That’s got very little to do with curiosity and creativity.
Curiosity can be encouraged at home.
Since grades matter, there’s no getting around the fact that your child will have to master the none-too-creative task of passing standardized tests at school. But this task is unlikely to satisfy his natural curiosity, which is why it’s so important that you provide outlets for experimentation and creativity.
Take it from the Wright brothers – the aviators who made history by becoming the first men to get a plane off the ground. How did they come by their epoch-defining invention? Here’s how Orville, one of the brothers, remembers it. The greatest thing in their favor, he wrote, was “growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.”
So what kind of tasks excite kids’ curiosity? Johnny, a seven-year-old from California, told the author about his favorite experiment: putting raisins in bubbly water, which made them dance, and then in flat water, which didn’t. He loved trying to figure out why the raisins behaved that way. Then there’s Gianna, an eleven-year-old from Missouri, who enjoys nothing more than designing websites about topics close to her heart, like animal endangerment.
Orville, Johnny, and Gianna are all talking about the same thing: open-ended activities that encourage active, self-driven experiences. That’s something you can give your child at home. How? Here are some ideas.
First off, use open-ended games, toys, and gadgets. Kids thrive when they’re allowed to let their imaginations roam and don’t have to worry about finding the “right” answers. Think marking pens, yarn, and finger paints, or materials that lend themselves to free-form construction like popsicle sticks, paper tubes, and masking tape. Flashlights, sheets, and pillows to create caves, castles, and forts are other great ideas. Whatever you give your children, encourage them to find as many unusual ways to use those materials as possible.
You can also use your words to inspire curiosity. Questions like “I wonder why that river is covered in ice?” or “I wonder why leaves are green and the sky is blue?” are effective ways of getting your kid thinking. Finally, remember that creativity requires time, so give your child plenty of opportunity to play, imagine, and daydream. If his weekend and after-school schedules are packed, think about what you can cut out to create more space for solitary experimentation and creative tasks.
And there you have it – a recipe for helping your child develop greater self-confidence, empathy, and creativity and start thriving rather than simply striving.
What I took from it.
Today’s kids are struggling. They’re isolated, stressed, and running on empty. Despite all their achievements and hard work, it’s like a piece of the puzzle is missing. That piece is character – the qualities like self-confidence, empathy, curiosity, and creativity that help us lead meaningful lives in and beyond school. Luckily, these qualities can be taught. The trick, of course, is knowing how. But first, parents need to recognize the problems afflicting their kids and take the lead in creating a new approach to their children’s development and education.