Ep. 61 – Dr. Michele Borba – Thrivers: Building Character In Kids
- Reasons why Gen Z kids (1997 - 2012) are more stressed, lonely, and depressed when compared with any previous generation.
- How to discover and embrace our children's natural character strengths.
- 7 studied character traits that set us up to thrive.
Michele Borba is an internationally renowned educational psychologist recognized for her decades of research and study on the teaching of character.
She’s a dynamic and engaging writer and speaker and in this episode, you’ll hear story after story from her years of experience working with educators around the world, discovering why it is, that in the midst of calm or crisis, some kids struggle and others shine.
Dr. Michele BorbaMichele Borba is an internationally renowned educational psychologist who is consulted broadly; from Sesame Street to 150 appearances on the Today show to trauma training with the Navy Seals.
She’s worked all over the world with children facing challenges, such as severe emotional, physical and learning disabilities - children in trauma - and gifted and exceptionally talented children.
Michele is the author of 25 books, the latest bestseller is Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle And Others Shine. She’s a wonderful storyteller, a dynamic speaker, and deeply committed to education and care.
Ep. 61 – Dr. Michele Borba – Thrivers: Building Character In Kids
Rachel Cram – Good morning, Michelle.
Dr. Michele Borba – Good morning, Rachel.
Rachel Cram – You got your cup of coffee, is that in your hand?
Dr. Michele Borba – I got my cup of coffee. This is my jumpstart to life, but I have a feeling I’m not going to need it.
Rachel Cram – You do not need caffeine. I think that’s very true. But it is bright and early, so I think it’s totally justified that you have it. But just before we started recording, I had said to you, and I just want to repeat it again because I mean it so wholeheartedly, Michelle, you bring your full self to every interview you do, which are so many, like, you’ve been on the Today show, what, 150 times or something, but even down to small podcasts, you bring your full self. And I know that’s because you’re so passionate about the well-being of children and families.
Dr. Michele Borba – Oh, thank you so much. I care so much about kids, but also parents. We love our children desperately. Oh my gosh, we want them to be happy and successful. And if there’s anything I’ve done, it’s probably been to have the real honor to be able to look at research for so long and find out there’s some science that if we just copy that approach, I think we get better results and that’s what our children are just craving right now.
Rachel Cram – Well, and on that note, congratulations because you just received a national lifetime achievement award for your research and study of that science on the teaching of character.
Dr. Michele Borba – Oh my gosh, talk about a covid moment. To all of a sudden get this award. The man that it was named after, Sandy McDonnell, was my mentor and my hero. This man was just the epitome of character. He started the McDonnell Douglas Corporation. He’s just extraordinary. He passed away several years ago, but there’s an award in his honor, in his name. And oh my gosh, when they gave that to me, I cried for a week. Character to me is so critical. It’s raising good human beings, and thank you for bringing that.
Rachel Cram – Oh, that’s what your work has been all about. And you know, really in your work and your latest book, Thrivers that we’re going to be talking about today, it is a culmination of a lifetime of work, and that’s where the richness and depth comes in because you can’t get this kind of information in a decade. It takes multiple decades.
Dr. Michele Borba – Thank you for that. The thing about Thrivers is that it has been my one question my entire career. ‘Why do some kids struggle and others thrive?’
And then came a crisis of a pandemic. Then came a mental health crisis that’s been unprecedented. And it was rewinding it back to, what can we do to flip this around? Because in all reality, Rachel, it’s going to be a very uncertain world that our children are growing up in. Far different than our own childhoods. It’s going to continue to be unpredictable, uncertain. And so I think we need to reboot our parenting. We have to prepare them for an uncertain life. And the best thing is the science is on our side that thrivers are made, not born. There’s simple little things we can do to help our kids be able to handle whatever comes their way. And in the end, isn’t that what parenting is, to be able to say, “You got it, sweetie pie” and have them walk out to be confident in their own realm.
Rachel Cram – Now, when I hear you say thrivers are made, not born, I know that this comes not just from working with kids that are in ideal situations, but kids all over the world in a wide range of situations. You’ve worked with children with severe emotional disabilities, physical learning disabilities, children in foster care, children in trauma, gifted and exceptionally talented children. You’ve worked in war-torn areas. Rwanda after the genocide, in Cambodia with kids on the killing fields. You’ve worked in North America, with kids who are what you call ‘running on empty.’ Pre-pandemic we had one in five kids struggling with mental health. And now you’re saying we have one in three kids struggling with mental health. So when you say ‘we learn to thrive.’ I know you’re saying that through seeing children who have thrived despite extremely difficult situations.
Dr. Michele Borba – Well, the fascinating thing, Rachel, is that we’re now looking at new research that says some of our kids that are struggling the most right now are from some of our more affluent homes. So this is not a zip code problem. It’s really looking at what the research is saying. And the piece that just hit me that I went, “Oh my gosh, here’s the godsend,” was Emmy Werner. Here’s a child growing up in a war-torn area of World War Two in Europe. She’s watching this unfold, and she’s always had a question as she grows up and becomes a developmental psychologist, “Why do some of those kids endure a war?” And so she began to study about 680 kids, from very adverse areas for 40 years, and she was absolutely shocked to discover that despite the adversity, one-third were bouncing up to be caring, competent, and compassionate. She said, “Why?”
And she found two things. The first one was; they had a caring champion in their life who was there, who refused to give up on them and said, I’m here for you no matter what. If not the parent, it was a teacher or a coach. But the second thing is that they had protective buffers that they’d learn, coping strategies like problem-solving, prayer, humor, social competence, simple, ordinary things. And as a result, when the adversity came, they were able to bounce back and keep on going.
There’s the thing we need to instill. We need to look at our kids right now and say, Do they have those coping strategies? If not, we’re going to start teaching them.
Rachel Cram – Well, and that’s exactly what your Thrivers is about. It’s filled with hundreds of ideas to help parents teach their kids coping strategies that build protective buffers.
Now, if I’m remembering correctly, you were originally studying to be a history major, and then when you saw the work of Emmy Werner, that’s when you shifted into psychology. Is that correct?
Dr. Michele Borba – I flipped it, and it was fascinating. I came home as the history major, walked into my living room just from college break. And my dad, a very calm, cool person, was a basket case, and he was so angry and I’ve never seen him like that. He had a Newsweek magazine in his hand and on the cover was pictures of babies. And the headline said, “The first three years of life make or break a child.”
And he looked at me and he said, “Don’t buy into this, Michele, because if this were true, I’d be dead today.”
Now, I had no idea what he was talking about, but he began to tell me for the first time about his childhood. He said, “Michele, my parents were extremely destitute. They were from Italy. They came over on a boat without English, without a dime in their pocket and landed in California destitute.”
My grandfather finally finds a job as a coal miner and then dies when my dad was two. The only way that my grandmother could afford them was to put them in an orphanage. He and his four other brothers and sisters.
He said. “But you know what, Michele? I lived there for two years and I survived, and what I learned were character strengths.”
But he said, “Don’t believe it. Don’t buy into, it’s the first three years of her life,” and at that moment I went back, found Emmy Werner, who was the professor of psychology at Davis, changed my major and there was my whole career of now trying to figure out how my dad made it and how so many other kids made it despite adversity.
Rachel Cram – Wow. So your dad was pre-baby boomer generation, I guess, right?
And in your book, you’re writing about Gen Z, which are children born between 1997 and 2012. Your book starts with these really alarming statistics talking about how these Gen Z kids who are the best educated, the most racially, ethnically and sexually diverse generation in history, economically stronger than most children in all of history. And yet, despite all of that, they’re less happy and more stressed and lonely and depressed and suicidal when compared with any previous generation. And of course, that’s including these generations of people that went through World War One, World War Two, your dad’s generation. That’s very sad and alarming and I’m wondering, do you have any overall understanding, before we get into the details, of why is it that this generation is in such a difficult state?
Dr. Michele Borba – Great question, Rachel, and it’s been haunting me. What you just said were highly, highly defined by the most prestigious organizations that we have, they’re worried also about our children. Childhoods have changed dramatically.
So I started asking kids, from coast to coast, “What’s going on?”
They all said they were empty. I remember sitting in with a group of middle school kids and I said, “Why, why are you so empty?” and this child turns and looks at a puzzle that’s sitting on the table. It’s a puzzle that kids are working on during lunchtime. And he said, “Well, we’re kind of like that puzzle. You see all those puzzle pieces that are missing, you know, like how to be a good person, how to cope, how to stand up for ourselves. Those are the pieces, that’s missing in our lives. We’ve been so pushed to get the GPA. We’re kind of like been raised to be test scores.”
And I think we need to find those other pieces. It just means we need to reboot and get on back on track and help our kids be the best that they can be. Hmm.
Rachel Cram – When you say we need to find those other pieces, reboot, get back on track, I’ve heard you talk about Mean World Syndrome. Do you think that ties in here as well?
Dr. Michele Borba – Yes, I think everything ties in. I don’t think it’s one thing. We’re raising our kids on a seismic shift in a culture. When our children repeatedly see dismal, frightening images, for instance, let’s get a pulse on today’s kids. They’ve been watching a daily death count, ‘How many people died today?’ for over the last two years. They’ve been seeing extremely visual, from racial injustice to capital insurrections in our country. We’re looking at just horrific kinds of images. It builds up. And after a while what happens is that optimism begins to go down, and pessimism, pervasive and more permanent, begins to erode their sense of hope. And they start to raise the white flag. They’re seeing the images and we need to be very aware of what they’re seeing.
The coolest thing I saw was a group of Long Island children who said they were so concerned about the images they kept seeing every day. So they said, we convinced our superintendent to buy a plasma TV? We’re going to put it in the front quad so that when we walk to school every day, it’s the first thing we see.
I said,” Well, what do you see it on the TV?”
And they all looked at me. “Good news. We’re having the superintendent find videos of good stuff that’s happening in the world that we walk in and we go, “We got this.”
And I’m like, “Oh my gosh. So simple.” And the teens solved it.
Maybe every night we could do good news reports around the table, Rachel. Let’s go looking for them. Blow them up. What a great way to start or end your day.
Rachel Cram – Well, I’ve actually already started this with my family, because when I read your book, you talk about this and I know that on Instagram feeds, you can find good news stories. And so I said to my husband, “Let’s start this.”
Right now at home we’ve got a 11-year-old, a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old. So the 16 and 17 year olds, both have phones, are both on Instagram. So I said between my husband and our two teenage boys, let’s take turns coming to the table with a good news story off of Instagram or whatever that we’re going to share, to start our mealtime. And so we’ve done it for two nights and it’s been amazing. It’s fun.
Dr. Michele Borba – It is fun because after a while, what’ll happen is the kids will start bringing the news to you, and say, “Look, Mom, look, what happened?”
Rachel Cram – Yeah, because they’ve attuned ourselves to look for the good. And you have multiple stories of how that changes a child’s outlook on people and on life.
Dr. Michele Borba – Yes. I mean, simple little things. One of my favorite ones is this incredible kid, Christian Bucks from Philadelphia. He gets so tired of looking at the kids who were lonely on the playground, he went to his principal and said, “Can we put a bench on the playground?”
“Well, if you’re lonely, you could sit on the bench, and then all the rest of the kids can look at the bench and go, “Oh, he needs a friend, I’ll go sit on the bench next to him.”
School after school around the world now has benches, and kids who will go “We can do that too.”
Rachel Cram – My kid’s school has one of those. I had no idea what the history was. I love that. That’s so great.
Musical interlude #1
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Rachel Cram – OK, well, let’s jump into these seven teachable traits, and my understanding is that you looked at the work of Emmy Warner and the work of a number of other people like her. And you gathered, it sounds like a pile of Post-it notes and put all their work together to figure out what was the commonality, in all of these researchers. What were the traits that all of them had discovered, what would allow children to thrive? And you boil it down to seven.
Dr. Michele Borba – Boiled down to seven, and the fascinating thing was, I also had some other criteria. Number one, it had to be evidence-based. Those traits.
Number two, it had to be teachable. It’s not something that’s inborn that’s based on your DNA. Teachable.
Number three is I wanted to make sure that they impacted resilience, that’s also well-being. But teachers would say, “But we’re also teaching in a classroom.” They also impact peak performance. So these are things that last from toddler to teen, and it’s not too late for us, the grown-ups too. At every age they make a major difference and it’s not an overnight thing Rachel.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, so we don’t need to listen to these and go, “Right, tomorrow I start working on all of these with my child.” It’s not going to work like that. And you even say, we don’t need to have every single one of these seven character traits.
Dr. Michele Borba – It’s a rare person that has all seven. And the other thing is that each adverse situation may need a different skill set. It’s not all the same in terms of what kind of adversity hits you. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach. We got to figure out what works best for our kids, which one of these we’re already doing because we are. And then where’s the missing links that help our kids be able to thrive? Hmm.
Rachel Cram – I wonder if you want to walk through the seven traits, and these are really well outlined in your book obviously, but just to give people a little feel for what are those traits. Again, knowing it’s not like we have to have all of them, where two or more of these traits are gathered in our life, we can shine. But there’s a multiplier effect, too. You said that when you have two or three of them working together, they multiply.
Dr. Michele Borba – Yeah, it amplifies it and it makes them into superpowers for kids.
So first is confidence. The child knows who they are, not what we want them to be. That ‘who we are’ gives them a sense of passion. It’s strength awareness. So when push comes to shove, this is a kid who’s going to be able to say, “It’s OK, I got it.” They have that inner confidence.
The second one is empathy. We now know that that is a core skill for mental health and it’s a child who is more likely to think ‘we’ not ‘me.’ It is the effect that gives the child social competence. Emmy Werner said, “A kid doesn’t need 50 friends, but they need to be able to know how to reach out and attract others, because that’ll build him from the inside out.”
Third, self-control, to be able to put a brake on impulses and find coping strategies that keep the brake on stress so it doesn’t rise into that anxiety and depression. We get to find what works for our kids.
Fourth is integrity. Fascinating. Sometimes adversity is the tough stuff, but other times it’s the peer pressure. Should I or shouldn’t I? That child is able to say, “I know what I stand for. I have a strong moral code.” He’s got those.
Then comes, I love this one. Oh my gosh. Drum roll. Curiosity. Not that the kid is a little Albert Einstein, but he is open to ideas and possibilities. He’s a problem solver, which is probably one of the most highly correlated traits of resilience. He’s not dumbfounded with the adversity or the challenge. He goes, “I’ll find a way through or I’ll figure out a different way.” He’s not waiting for us to rescue him. He’s just going to forge ahead because he knows he can storm his brain of possibilities.
And then comes perseverance. That persevering kid is the one who keeps on going, goes the nine yards because he’s got a few of these other traits.
And then finally, that hope, that optimism, not that he’s a Pollyanna, but he’s got skills to be able to reassess what he’s doing and can keep on forging through.
Rachel Cram – You know, as a parent, I listen to that going “Yes. Yes, yes. I want all of those for my children.”
Is there one strength that you believe is the most important? Like, is there a starting place where you think ‘before you jump into any of these, this is the one you really should focus on first?’
Dr. Michele Borba – Yes, I think it’s confidence. And I think the reason for it is you’re going to be far more successful if you start with what the child is capable of doing – with the child’s own assets. So I would say the first thing is this week take a three by five card and walk around your house without your kid knowing you’re watching them and figure out where his tenacity lies. Where’s his eagerness? Where’s the need level? When the soccer camp closed during COVID and you saw the depression sneak in, “Oh my gosh, now what am I going to do?”
He loved it. It gave him passion. Find what his natural assets and strengths are. You know, Rachel, probably what parents say is one of their highlights of the book is a core asset survey. It’s four pages. Sit down with it, and what it does is help you identify what are you missing in your child? What are the strengths or the talents, their character strengths, their interests, their hobbies, their learning styles? And once you figure those out, that’s the gold mine of parenting. Now you go, “Well that’s where I’m going to go. Now I’m going to be able to take his strengths and push ahead.”
Rachel Cram – Ok, and once we have that information about our child, and you give this list: when are they happiest, when are they tenacious, when are they eager and engaged. As you say, “we can intentionally then, help children grow into who they are.”
Dr. Michele Borba – Yes.
Rachel Cram – So Michele, where do we go from there? What are we doing to teach, empathy and self-control, integrity, curiosity, these other character traits? And what are we doing to be teachable ourselves?
Dr. Michele Borba – Ah, what are we doing to be teachable?
There are simple things we sometimes overlook. For instance, one of the best ways to teach anything is by our own example. Are we modeling it? For instance, we want a kid to be empathetic. If your child looks at you, what is he seeing or hearing each day?
The second thing is expectations. We figure out what really matters in our house. For instance, it could be integrity. So are we talking about it over and over and over enough so your child can explain it without us?
The third thing is experiences. Are we giving any opportunities for our children to be able to take the experience of being empathetic, to be able to do it so they feel it and see it and realize, Oh my gosh, that’s me, I can do it. So it becomes more active.
Rachel Cram – So, just to keep us organized with all this fabulous information Michele, we teach these character traits through example, expectations and experiences. And for parents and caregivers, this is all about being…
Dr. Michele Borba – Intentional.
Rachel Cram – Yes, intentional. OK, can I take those one by one with you?
Dr. Michele Borba – Oh, you may.
Rachel Cram – Because as you’re saying this, there are just so many pieces from your book that demonstrate this. You have got hundreds of science based activities really in your book that parents can do for no money that helps us bring these teachable traits to our kids. So if I can look at example first, teaching these 7 traits to our kids through example, and just give some highlights from your book.
You, you talk about us needing to help kids see the good in people. And the good examples that are out there. You have this amazing story about this teacher Norm Canard.
Dr. Michele Borba – Oh, he’s a gift.
Rachel Cram – Oh, he’s amazing. And he had this incredible history project he was doing with his class, where four of the girls in his class discovered Irina Sendler. Can you share this? Because I feel like this is a really good example of teaching through example.
Dr. Michele Borba – It’s absolutely textbook perfect on how you help kids find goodness because you empower them.
Norm Canard is a history teacher at high school, and he swears the best way to teach character or any of these traits is through actual experiences.
What he does is that each year he has his kids find an example of someone who emulates good character. He’s got a box, an old box for twenty-five years in his classroom that he keeps going through newspaper articles and cutting out real people who emulate character. And when the girls in the class said, “We can’t find anything, we can’t find anybody.”
He says, “Go to the box.”
All of a sudden, they find a story about this woman named Irena Sendler. “It says here,” they say to Mr Canard, “that this woman saved twenty five hundred kids in Warsaw during World War Two, well we googled her. She’s not there.”
He said. “Well, then dig deeper. Find out a little bit more, or start calling the Holocaust centers. Go keep digging.”
When kids are passionate, they do dig deeper and they call one of the Holocaust museums and they say, “Yes, she saved twenty-five hundred kids. She is alive still today. She disguised herself as a nurse. Can you imagine she’s less than five feet tall? She walked through the Warsaw Ghetto past Nazi guards every day carrying a suitcase and said, “I have to go in there and give typhus shots and if I don’t, then you’ll get typhus.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes,” says the Nazis. “Go on in and give them.”
Once she walks in, this incredible, compassionate moral human being says to the parents who were Jewish. “Can I save your child? Can I please save your child? I promise you that I will do anything I can. I will put them in safe houses. May I save them?”
One by one she puts every child in a suitcase, in pipes, one child in a coffin, walks them past Nazi guards and saves twenty-five hundred children. All of them now go into foster homes, neighbors, everyone saves the children.
When the girls then say, “We have got to tell her story,” they put together this little play called life in a jar.
Rachel Cram – Why was it called life in a jar? This was amazing. This was so good.
Dr. Michele Borba – I love it! Because what she does is that she says, “I’m going to put every one of their names on a little piece of paper. I’m going to hide them in a jar and bury them in a tree, under my backyard so the Nazis won’t find them. And then after the war, I’m going to unburied those jars and reunite the kids.”
Almost every single parent died, but every single child was saved.
Now what happens is the girls put together a little play called Life In A Jar, and what they do is that they give it to the kids in their school, they give it to the local Kiwanis club, they give it to a rotary club. And a rotary turns to the kids and says, “Does she really still exist? Is she really here?”
“Well, then we need to fly you to meet your hero.”
They bought airline tickets for all the girls and the teacher. They fly them to meet their hero. And it’s absolutely, when I saw the photo of the girls hugging their hero. I interviewed Megan Felt, one of the girls, she said. “That changed our lives. We asked her, “Why did you do this? Why did you risk your life?” She said, “It was how I was raised. My father said if anybody was drowning, it makes no difference who they are or what their race is. You jump in and you save them.” That’s what I do, and that’s what we need to do for our children.””
Rachel Cram – Hmm. Amazing story. Amazing.
Dr. Michele Borba – Isn’t it?
Rachel Cram – And in your book, you were saying that prior to the girls discovering her, there was nothing about Irena online. You couldn’t even google her. And then after they discovered her, she got the Nobel Peace Prize. Right? She was nominated
Dr. Michele Borba – She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Irena Sendler has now become a name that’s well known. There was a movie that’s actually been made about her life that we can show children. But the takeaway is, the example was so concrete that Norm Cannard really conveyed to those kids, ‘You, too, can make a difference. Anyone can make a difference. You can be a change-maker.’
And the other thing is, get a box of good news stories about real people who are examples of integrity and morality because those are the best ways that our kids begin to emulate others and realize the world is a good place.
Rachel Cram – Humm. As parents, I think that most of us hope and believe that we are being this kind of example, not probably to the extreme of Irene’s story, but that we want to be people that model caring. But you give this alarming statistic. It’s a Harvard study where you say, “96 percent of parents say they want their kids to be caring over anything else. But 81 percent of the kids when they were surveyed believe that their parents value achievement and happiness over caring.”
Where’s the disconnect?
Dr. Michele Borba – I love that I’m so glad you brought that up because it means, first of all, we do want them to care, but somehow our messages aren’t getting through to our children. Why? First of all, you have to know something about that study. That was thousands of middle school and high school kids across the country. Number two, the researchers at Harvard were shocked, but when they asked the kids, Why is this? How could this be? The most important thing is because the first thing that my parents asked me is, “What I get. What was the grade? What was my score?”
What is lying dormant is our messages about caring, about looking for the good news stuff about there is the kind of person that I really admire. That’s what I want you to be. About even praising our kids for kindness and care. What our children are saying is too often we’re flipping it. It’s all about the test score, and it just means that alone can be our red flag, our wake up call. Start looking for the moments when our kids are kind and caring, good and courageous, brave and truthful, because when we just acknowledge it alone, kids will say, “I guess it means it’s important to my mom and dad.”
Rachel Cram – Well, I think what floats to the top sometimes in our parenting isn’t really the heart of who we are. It’s just in the busyness of life, maybe in the urgency of moments, what floats the top isn’t necessarily reflecting what’s most important to us.
Musical Interlude #2
If you’d like to connect further with Dr. Michele Borba’s writing and work, or if you’d like to read a written transcript of this conversation with Michele, find links at family360podcast.com. It’s all there waiting for you.
Rachel Cram – OK, so when we talk about these seven traits being teachable, we teach through example, which you’ve just talked about. And then the second suggestion for how we teach is through our expectations. What matters most in our home?
So, right at the beginning of Thrivers, you have a ‘character strength survey,’ and you offer it to parents as a way of recognizing where and what makes their child happiest, most engaged, most energized.
And then, once a parent knows this, knows their child’s natural strengths, they can then work with their child’s strengths to nurture these 7 resilience traits. It’s well done Michele.
Dr. Michele Borba – Thank you.
Rachel Cram – So, how does a parent administer the survey? Do we do it ourselves or do we do it with our child?
Dr. Michele Borba – Oh, I love the question because there’s no answer to it. In some cases I’ve had parents say, “I do it by myself.”
In other cases, “It’s with my husband and I, we work together,” or “I send it to the grandparents. I send it to other people who know my child, love my child and share what they see,” because our kids act differently in different situations. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is, you figure out would you like your child to be able to do it all by themselves? And then how fun to be able to compare your survey with them? I did that on Dr. Phil with a mom and a daughter, and it was wonderful when we put the two surveys together because they didn’t realize how much they really were aligned and how much they did see the same strengths in the child.
Now, when you finish the survey, you then look and say, “Is my child aware of all of those traits about himself?”
Because sometimes we see it, does the child see it?
Rachel Cram – Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, it’s interesting thinking of my children, I have one son in particular who is incredibly strong socially. He’s just got a real capacity to read the social situation and to jump in. And I’ve said to him a lot of times, “Ty, this is just an incredible strength’” I don’t think he believes me. I think he thinks everybody can do this. Can’t everybody do this? I wish I was good at this. This is nothing.
When I was reading your book, I thought, I got to lean into him and tell him, “No, not everybody can do this. Because it’s so natural for you. You think everybody can do this, but they can’t. It’s like, that’s a strength for you, honey.”
And that’s what that reminded me of is, often the things that we’re really good at, that come naturally to us, you don’t think of them as a strength, you take them for granted.
Dr. Michele Borba – Oh, right on to that one. They don’t realize that not everybody else is as good in that particular area. And the fascinating thing is, you are happiest, I don’t care if you’re ninety-three or five when you’re engaged in those strength areas. It’s the flow state. So, tune in a little more. Watch carefully. Zero in and carve enough time for the child to develop it.
The average child in the United States, anyway, this University of Chicago, immensely talented kids give up their talent at age 13 because they don’t have enough time to develop it. Carve in time. Look at your kid’s calendar. Does he have 15 minutes or 30 minutes a day to just work on the guitar because he loves it so much?
Rachel Cram – Or to hang out with friends?
Dr. Michele Borba – Hang out with friends.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, you had a great story. In my mind I call the wolf story about this dad that you met, who, kind of against his desires, discovered his son’s unique strengths and then realized he needed to celebrate them. Do you want to tell that story?
Dr. Michele Borba – You know, the fascinating thing, Rachel, is that all the research says we are less likely to focus on the kid’s natural strengths because we have these hopes and dreams to get them into what we think they’ll excel or be the best for them.
So, I met a dad and he was talking about his middle school son. He said, OK, I’ve got two boys, they are different as night and day. My oldest kid is just into math and science and he’s fabulous on this. But my middle school kid always talks about wolves. I mean, after a while, it’s like, “Come on, wolves?”
I wanted him to be a lawyer. That’s what I am, and I figured he’d be great at it. But he just kept talking wolves. Well, one day I had my OK, I’m going to take him to a park and have him meet with a national park ranger about wolves. And I’m so glad I did because I sat there listening to my son. The stats he knew about wolves, the passion he described wolves. He politely corrected the park ranger about wolves. And that was my moment that said “Enough on the law. This kid needs to go into biology. He’s passionate about wolves because that’s what helps him thrive. That’s what he loves.”
We got to listen to where our kids are coming from. Not what we want them to be, but who they are.
Rachel Cram – Why do you think it’s hard for parents to focus on their children’s natural strengths rather than prompting them in a different direction? What are our fears around that?
Dr. Michele Borba – I think we’re so into financial strife. We have been fed the GPA and the college level is the only way that they’re going to get the accolades of life and be happy. When reality says, the number one time our children are most likely to drop out is in the first semester of college.
Why? I interviewed 2500 college counselors. They said, “They don’t have passion. They’ve been driven to be what we want them to be but once they get here. They realize this isn’t their passion.”
If you really want a child to be able to thrive in college. Go have them visit it and then ask the key question, “Do you see yourself here, sweetie? Is this a place where you feel like you belong and connect?”
Our children are most likely to thrive in college because they feel themself as part of the community. They have a sense of belonging.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, belonging is key. Back to your wolf story and the explanation that you’re just giving for why we’re fearful, I also wonder even earlier on, you think you know of my kids talking about wolves all the time at school, like, are they going to be liked? Will they be popular? And so I think there’s that pressure even earlier on, like wanting to wanting to mold them into something that we think is going to make them happy when we don’t really know.
Dr. Michele Borba – I love that ‘wanting to mold them into something that we want them to be.’ And the problem is if we mold the wrong way, we’ve really got a problem for our child. When they’re younger, our kids choose friends based on proximity. “He’s my best friend, mommy, because he lives next door.”
As they get older kids choose friends based on similar interests and values. So maybe there’s another little opening for us. Find the passion your child has and then find a like minded child who they can connect with every once in a while, because that will drive the passion and the interest.
Rachel Cram – And if it’s wolves and there’s just the two of them and they’re never part of the popular group, who cares?
Dr. Michele Borba – Yeah. Well, you know, the other thing is too, you can find mentors in their life because what the dad said is, “I didn’t know a thing about wolves. What the heck was I going to do to help my child? So I found a mentor in the community who also shared that passion. He has really helped drive my child’s passion even more.”
We overlook other people, carrying champions in our children’s lives who support our kids, who can push them and pull them to be who they are.
Rachel Cram – In this section about teaching our kids these resilience traits through our ‘expectations,’ you have a story about a girl. I think her name’s Mia. And you were interviewing teachers on integrity, I think. Is that right? And all these teachers said to you, “You’ve got to interview Mia. You’ve got to interview Mia.”
Can you just tell that story because it’s such a doable story I think as a family, but so profound.
Dr. Michele Borba – Well, first of all, I love this because what I did when I was writing Thrivers was to go across the country, interviewing kids and teachers. But when I got to Florida, all the teachers kept saying, “Well, you’ve got to go interview Mia, don’t interview us, go interview Mia”.
And I said,” Why?”
“Because she has such incredible integrity and empathy. How did she get that way? Go find out.”
So this kid, she’s 16, 17 years of age. I say, “Mia, every single teacher is asking me to interview you to find out how you develop such integrity.”
She actually laughed. I said, “Oh, come on, Mia, how’d you get to be this way?”
She said, “It was how I was raised.”
I said, “OK, Mia, open up. How were you raised?”
She laughed again as she said, “Age six. It was the most interesting, fun thing and I’ll never forget it. My dad calls me and my two younger brothers into the family room. I walk in and there’s chart paper all over the floor with these marking pens and mom sitting on the floor and dad said, “Have a seat. We’re going to figure out what kind of family we want to be remembered for.””
What a great question that alone was. So dad says, “Come on, have a seat. We’re going to write down words and then we’re going to keep writing. And every word that we come up with is how we want to be remembered. Mom’s going to write them down and then we’re going to vote.”
“So, what kind of words did you come up with Mia?”
“Oh, you know, like respectful and responsible and kind and honest. And we kept going and going until Dad said, “Enough. Now we vote, whatever comes up, it’s going to be the one we’re going to be want to be remembered for.” And we chose honest.””
So, “Okay, so how did you remember that as a family?”
Again, this child laughs and she goes, “It was impossible not to. My dad turns it into our family motto, ‘We’re the honest Duns.’ And then my mom, she must have said it 50 times a day. She’d drop us off at school. “Remember where the honest Duns.’
We’d be watching a movie? “Wow, they’re honest Duns.” We did something wrong, “Now, was that an honest Dun thing to do? My mom and dad said it so much we became it.”
That’s the best way to instill any of these traits in a child. Be intentional. Keep saying it over and over again. Best way to instill conscience in a child – textbook perfect what those parents did. How simple. How simple. That wasn’t a program. That wasn’t a tutor. That was just the whole family deciding this is who we’re going to be and then finding simple little ways to weave it in.
Rachel Cram – And that’s doable. And they decided and they decided together. I think it just be fascinating to see what my kids came up with.
Dr. Michele Borba – See that alone is the great thing. What are kids thinking? In fact, here’s another great question. Put your kids down, sit them on a chair and just ask, “Hey, what’s the single most important thing we stand for in this house?”
If your child doesn’t repeat, “Oh, you want me to be kind, mom, you want me to be kind.” That was mine in my house. It just meant I’m not repeating them enough. Yeah.
Musical interlude #3
Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with Dr. Michele Borba.
In our next episode, we welcome Dr. Jo Boaler as our guest. Dr. Boaler is a professor of education and equity at Stanford University and the faculty director of youcubed, a free online educational resource that’s reached over 230 million students. The BBC named Jo a world leader who is changing the face of education, and in our interview, we’ll be talking about her newest book, Limitless Mind: How We Learn, Lead And Live Without Limiting Barriers. Join us for an intriguing and inspiring conversation.
And now back to our conversation with Michele, who’s just finished describing how we nurture character in our kids through example and expectations and is about to describe how we nurture through experiences.
Rachel Cram – Loving this. OK, so these seven traits, they’re teachable. We need to be teaching them. We teach them through example, helping our kids see good people. Good examples. We do it through expectations, looking at what matters in the lives of our kids and what matters in our home. And the third one, you said, is we we teach through experience, giving opportunities to our children.
And, you know, I’m just going to keep you rolling on stories because I think stories are a great way to remember all the information that you’re giving. Your book, like I said, is loaded with experiences that we can do with our kids, and they’re so accessible.
You talk about giving our children the experience of our encouragement or the experience of our praise being very intentional. Do you want to build on that Michele?
Dr. Michele Borba – Well, one of the things we may be doing wrong is we love our children so much, we praise them to death. And we’ve actually discovered, one of the reasons that empathy is going down is because it’s all about ‘you’ as opposed to ‘the other child’. We want to help kids developed ‘me,’ but we also want them to develop that sense of ‘we.’
I was a special ed teacher for a long time, and we always struggle with children who are low in confidence. I have a little guy in my classroom. His name was Michael, his self-confidence was so low, and he struggled constantly. And one day I discovered that he actually was good at art. Now, if at that point I’d said, “Oh my gosh, Michael, everybody look at this. You’re so artistic.”
I know he would have ripped it up because he didn’t believe in it, but it was my moment to go, “This kid has a strength that’s legitimate. It’s authentic. He’s good at art. I’ve got to somehow provide more experiences for him to see that trait in himself.”
Now how do I do it? I partner up with his parents who say, “Let’s get him in an art class or a little club afterwards.”
Any other teacher who came into contact with this child, I’d say, “He’s really good at art.”
Slowly along the way Michael began to draw more and more until one day he forgot to cover up the fact that he really had drawn something beautifully. That was my first moment that I went up and said, “Michael, this is wonderful. You really are an artist. Can I put this on the board? The good work board?”
It was the one time he said, “Sure, Mrs. Borba.”
I put it on the good work board. A few of the other kids walked up to the good work board, looked at it and turned and said, “Oh my gosh, Michael, you’re really good at art.”
Well, the smile on this kid’s face. I’ll never forget it. All of a sudden from the inside out, he just turned. Well, he drew a little more, and became a little more confident. He actually now began to work a little harder. His whole demeanor changed, and then you lose them at the end of the year. But I’d always pass on to each teacher, “He’s really good at art.”
And then he went to middle school and high school. I always wondered what happened to this child and years later, I got a letter from this child that now he’s grown up and said, “Hi Mrs Borba, I just wanted you to know I graduated from high school,” he says, “But I also got a scholarship to college in what I always loved, in art. I just graduated Mrs. Borba, and I want you to know I’m an animator at Disney Studios.”
I fell to the ground going, “Oh my gosh.”
So here’s the bottom line to this; find your child’s legitimate nature. What’s his asset and strength? Don’t over praise him, but give him opportunities to shine. And if another kid sees it, like what happened there, it quadruples the effect. Praise when it’s deserved.
I think what we need to do, Rachel, is be a little bit more of a talent scout. Find our kids strengths, and that is one of the greatest forms of resilience.
Rachel Cram – This is so good Michele and I think we have time for one last story about ‘teaching character through experience,’ before we close off, if that’s ok with you?
Dr. Michele Borba – Perfect. Perfect.
Rachel Cram – You ended Thrivers with a story you also tell in your book Unselfie, about a 5 year old boy named Noah, who provided a wonderful learning opportunity for a 15 year old boy you call Justin, who was really struggling in school, right? He was a bully I think you said? And no one liked him? And just really almost not being able to stay at the school because of his behaviors. And this teacher gave him an experience that taught him some of these traits.
Dr. Michele Borba – Oh yes, this story was so textbook brilliant. I think the first thing we need to know is kids act how they see themselves to be, and if they don’t see themselves as the artistic like Michael or responsible or honest like Mia, they don’t have a way to be able to shine.
So poor Justin was really, really struggling. The principal wanted to suspend him, kick him out. The high school teacher said, “If you do, you will lose this child. I’m going to show him a different side. I’m going to become best friends with the kindergarten teacher.”
So what she did was to become best friends with the kindergarten teacher. That school was down the street and every day after school, Justin was to go and help Noah. Now here’s the big thing that we do wrong. We assume that Justin knows how to help. What the teacher did that was brilliant, the high school teacher, is that every day before Justin went she would exercise his social skills. Let’s practice how to encourage, or let’s practice eye contact, or let’s practice how to say hello. Just one skill at a time. She helped him.
Then the child would go and he’d practice. The following day he’d come back to the high school teacher. She’d say, “How’d it go? What worked? What didn’t work?”
So it was a long process.
Rachel Cram – And what did Noah think he was experiencing? Like, what was this five year old doing?
Dr. Michele Borba – Noah, the precious five year old. They chose the perfect kid. Kind of a laid back kid that kind of went along with it, who was really struggling himself, but kind of went with that going, “OK, this is fine.”
But you saw no relationship with the two kids at the beginning. Noah was always eager, but it took a while for Justin to be able to realize he could be a caring person.
The most amazing thing happened 21 days into this. The kindergarten teacher took a photo of it. Where there was no relationship all of a sudden you saw these two kids engaged with one another, enjoying each other’s company. Smiling with one another. It was absolutely perfect. Justin went back and said, “I did it.” He was so thrilled.
Bullying went down. He was a changed kid. The high school teacher said. “Who is this kid? What happened to him?”
But the best part of the whole story was five year old Noah, who went up to the kindergarten teacher and said, “I knew he could do it. You should never give up on a kid, you know?”
Oh, absolutely perfect. It’s an image rebuilding of a child who was so shut down. Experiences. Find one thing that’s doable. Role play it with the child over and over again.
I can do this. I am a caring person. I never saw myself in that light because I didn’t know how to care.
Rachel Cram – Well it’s practice right?
Dr. Michele Borba – Practice, practice, practice.
Rachel Cram – And you know, when we’re talking about, we want to lean into our kids natural strengths, it’s not that we can’t also sometimes see that there are some strengths that they truly need, and that takes patience, 21 days. It takes repeated experiences over and over again, giving them a chance to get a feel for what that’s about.
Dr. Michele Borba – You know, that’s absolutely right on the mark. So the takeaways here are, number one is, realize you’ve got to be intentional about it.
Number two. So what’s the plan? What’s the one little thing you want to do that you think this month, or this year, will help your kid become the best they could be?
Number three, don’t just try to do it yourself. Pass it on to one person, the caring person who cares desperately about your child or ask them, What can we do together? Keep working on it. Keep working on it. Keep working on it. You will see a gradual change in your child. It never happens overnight, keep on going. And that’s how we’re going to raise a strong generation of children.
There’s dozens of ideas in thrivers. Find one that works for you and your family. Keep working on it. Model it, because that’s the best way for your child to learn how to cope, how to be optimistic or problem solve.
Rachel Cram – Well, it’s right back to intensionality, right?
Dr. Michele Borba – Yes! Little things. They pick it up. If you just repeat what you think matters most that you want instilled in their heart and soul. I want tenacious kids who just know whatever comes their way. I got it. We can do it. And I’m not giving up.
Rachel Cram – Oh, awesome. I love it. Michelle, thank you so much. I know your paperback of Thrivers is about to come out. It is a brilliant book. and you are gifting so much to the world through your work. I really hope it won’t be your last.
Dr. Michele Borba – Oh, thank you, Rachel. I loved it. Best to you.
Rachel Cram – Ah, thank you so much.
Roy Salmond – Thank you Michele.
Dr. Michele Borba – Oh gosh, that was so fun. Listen, you guys, every once in a while, check it. Would you?
Rachel Cram – We will. We’d love to do that. You were so much fun and so much energy. It was fantastic. Thank you so much Michele, we will look forward to talking to you again.
Dr. Michele Borba – Thank you.
There is no doubt, Michele is one of the most animated guests we’ve hosted on family360. Like you said at the beginning of your conversation Rachel, she brings her full self.
She does. She’s very vivacious and gracious in sharing her and we admire and enjoyed her immensely.
We’re going to end with excerpts from a poem by Michael Josephson called What Will Matter.
His words reflect Michele’s, with the importance of intensionality in how we live and who we are.
The building of our character.
What Will Matter – with our thanks to Michele.
Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end.
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.
Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations
and jealousies will finally disappear.
So too, your hopes, ambitions, plans and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
So what will matter?
How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought
but what you built, not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success
but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned
but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity,
compassion, courage, or sacrifice
that enriched, empowered or encouraged others
to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence
but your character.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident.
It’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice.
Choose to live a life that matters.
by Michael Josephson
used with permission of the author