How To Build a Child who Thrives

Dr. Michele Borba

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Sep 25, 2021

What does it take to get a child to flourish? It’s a question that Dr. Michele Borba sought to answer.

Armed with 40+ years of experience as an educational psychologist speaker, award-winning author — who has published 24 books — and sought-after media contributor, Borba began looking at the science. She also interviewed other researchers, experts and more than 100 young people.

“I came across one piece of research [from] about 40 years ago, and it was by a woman named Emmy Werner, from the University of California Davis who had the same question we all do,” Dr. Michele Borba told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk. “Is there hope for some kids who really are suffering from extreme adversity? What this incredible researcher did was find about 700 children, and she decided to follow the same 700 kids who are facing a lot of adversity for 40 years. What happens to them when they grow up?”

Click for video transcription

Welcome to Where Parents Talk. I’m Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is an educational psychologist, a speaker, award winning author, and sought after media contributor. Her clients have included everyone from Sesame Street and military personnel to royalty. She has written 25 books, and her latest is called Thrivers: The surprising reason why some kids struggle and others shine.
We are delighted to welcome Dr. Michele Borba, who joins us today from California. Hi, there.

Hello. Hello.

I want to say that the title of your book I found absolutely fascinating because, you know, it’s it’s a positive concept in terms of what is it that we need to be doing as parents to help our kids thrive, versus, you know, struggle in life?

Oh, I love that. I think too often what we fail to do is look at their assets. And we use the deficit model instead. And as a result, we don’t get the changes we want. Now it’s not like we’re, we don’t, we should stop helping our kids with the math and they’re struggling. But we need to now look at what science says that the base of thriving really is confidence. It’s a child who knows who they are, not what they want them what we want them to become. And that’s the starting point of it all.

So let’s go back a little bit. You’ve been on the forefront of, of this topic in many ways for several decades. But I’m interested in what approach Did you take in terms of doing the research for this book?

I came across one piece of research about 40 years ago, and it was a woman named Emmy Werner, from University of California Davis who had the same question we all do. Is there hope for some kids who really are suffering from extreme adversity. So what this incredible researcher did was find about 700 children, and she decided to follow the same 700 kids who are facing a lot of adversity for 40 years. What happens to them when they grow up? What she was blown away by by even during their teens? Is that a number of them? 1/3 were caring, confident and competent, despite extreme adversity. We’re talking sexual, physical abuse, schizophrenic parents, they bounce back, then her question was the why. And what she discovered that we all need to know is it wasn’t DNA, it wasn’t IQ, it wasn’t zip code. It was what parents or if not a parent, a coach, or a teacher was doing or a grandparent to help these kids learn to thrive, learn to thrive, because thrivers are made not born.

So part of trying to understand what we should be doing, I think, personally, as a parent is really understanding what we’re doing currently that we shouldn’t be doing. Could you take us through that a little bit in terms of are we doing that’s preventing, building thrivers.

I think that we have a myth that resilience is locked into IQ or GPA, break it, because it’s not we have power and we can make or break our kids lives in terms of realizing it can be taught regardless of temperament. Regardless of what’s going on with the child, we can make a difference. The second thing is putting so much emphasis on the GPA and the IQ or the test score, that we’ve overlooked the other side, we kind of fail to really help the whole child develop. It’s always one sided play, unstructured play, just allowing the child to figure out who they are, can be enormously important. Thinking and assuming that the child is going to learn this stuff on their own. Like coping skills, they desperately No need somebody to say, here’s how to breathe, here’s how to reduce the stress or, or too much hovering, too much rescue too much lawnmower ring, what we now know is the resilient kids are kids who say I got this not mommy’s gonna do it. For me. They’re the slowly developed agency. But I love that they have this self-efficacy that is developed from an early age on that that helps them develop mental and moral strength from the inside out. So how does a parent who maybe has been doing exactly what you just described, that is to say hovering, helicopter parents, all the things that we would understand his, you know, currently goes on in many homes? How do they stop doing that? And what should they be doing instead? Well, first of all, acknowledge it. And that’s our key parenting moment because a lot of us go, oh my gosh, I didn’t realize I was doing it until it’s too late. That’s the key. Second of all, if you acknowledge it, then you go so what am I going to do instead it’s a simple little mindset switch and the
simplest thing is when you’re hovering too much is watch your feet. Where are they? If they’re always in front of your kid and you’re pulling the kid, then slowly start stepping back. And along the way, you start changing your language, sweetie pie. That’s okay. Mommy will help to you got this? What will you do? What’s your idea? What’s the process you’ll think about trying in, the next thing you can do is pass it on to somebody else. In fact, if you’re a mom, what you see Santa Cruz says is the coolest thing for you to do that changes your whole mindset in terms of parenting, is tell one other mom, here’s what my new plan is, you’re now going to be accountable because that other moms gonna keep nailing Yeah. So are you stepping back? Are you still hovering, just tell one more person, your goal and you’re more likely to keep on with it. Get a copy of Thrivers because it’s going to give you 300 ideas, don’t do them all. Your kid will never let you read another book. But find one thing that’s going to work for you and go, here’s the one thing this month, I’m going to start trying to implement every day, a minute a day, just a minute a day. And what will happen along the way, it’s your child will slowly learn the skill, and then start reminding you know, Mom, you’re supposed to be taking that one plus two breath.
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s amazing often, what our children are teaching us that we don’t realize that we’re being taught, but it’s happening. Let’s go through some of those seven points, buckets that you go through in thrivers that it takes to build a thriving child.

Number one is confidence. It’s a child who has awareness of who they are and what their strengths are. fascinating thing that me Warner discovered is that one of the things that resilient children possess is hobbies. So when push comes to shove, they use the hobby, I don’t care what it is, and you should neither to be able to use it to just decompress. So maybe step one is does your child have a hobby, if not start introducing them as a family. Maybe Great Aunt Sally can teach your kid knitting or grandma can get on the foot on the zoom and do baking or Uncle Harry can teach woodworking, what you’re looking for is the one thing your child is going to consistently use and know he can use to go to books don’t overlook books. What we now know is books can be enormously helpful for a child because you get into the book, I don’t care if it’s Bridge to Terabithia or wonder or Charlotte’s Web and realize, Oh, he’s got a problem. So I can work it through. That’s biblio therapy. Or another thing is just get a three by five card, walk around the house without your kid knowing you’re doing this and figure out what brings your child’s joy. When he’s really kind of in a in a down mode. Is it going to the book is it going to music is it maybe he’s got an interest that is I’m just going Mommy, I’m just gonna go play chess, whatever that is, that’s your go to and then be concerned if he doesn’t have one. What you’re looking for is figuring out what your child’s natural assets are, and then keep strengthening them. One of the best ways to do that is use your shot Crace, which means as soon as you discovered that your child is kind of Oh, how wonderful that is. You start saying to somebody else, oh my gosh, I’m so proud of my child’s kindness yesterday. Do you know what he did? And then describe it. He held the door open. Oh my gosh, he was so kind and you should see the look on the other person’s face. What happens is that quadruples, the praise, it’s authentic, it’s deserved, and your child begins to see a positive strength in himself.

So simple, really, and it is just it is a minor sort of shift and approach in many respects. In advance of writing thrivers, Dr. Borba, you pored over research studies, talk to all kinds of experts in their fields. And you also spoke to young people. I’m curious, what did you learn in the course of your research that surprised you?

The first thing is I started talking to kids once I looked at some very dismal stats on worldwide, particularly North American children, that one in five would suffer from a mental health disorder in their lifetime. And that was prior to a pandemic, a crisis only amplifies a mental health issue. The second thing was asking the why. What’s going on? I interviewed 100 kids one on one for about an hour each. And the most interesting thing is every single team told me Yeah, we are the most stressed out generation I’d say Why? Because many of them said because we’re we’re failing to learn the human stuff. The human traits of how do you calm down or how do you problem solve. I know Mike
Parents love me to death, but they do too much for me. And as a result, I’m lacking this stuff. One kid said I, my biggest concern is I’m worried I’m going to fail life. This was a kid on his way to an Ivy League school. I said, How do you feel like you’re going to feel like because I don’t know how to do my checkbook. I don’t know how to do a microwave. I don’t know do how to do most anything. I need to learn that stuff. So I can handle life. So I think those were the first things is they really reinforced the issue that our kids are failing and suffering. The second thing was all of the research from me Warner. But then there was Michael Rutter, who was looking at children in poverty, who was looking at children growing up with families who were schizophrenic moms or dads, and the kids still became overcomers. But they looked at the why. And it was always that they’ve learned skills of resilience, not 50,000 of them, but they knew how to problem solve. It was okay, I got a problem here. But I’m going to stop, I’m going to think and I’m going to figure out one thing I could do differently next time. And as a result, they bounce back.

So there will be parents who watch this interview and say to themselves, wow, seven individual teachable characteristics to help my child thrive. Like, I don’t have time for that. So how would you respond to that? What would you say to them to, to encourage support and help them cultivate, you know, kids who flourish?

Number one is it doesn’t have to be time consuming, but it needs to be repetitive. That’s the piece that we need to keep in mind. skills of resilience are learned through experiences, not through tutors, or worksheets or pricey programs. So the first thing is no, this is doable. The second thing is realize that maybe our biggest mistakes as the kids is not teaching the same thing or doing it over and over again, example. You’re not going to learn problem solving the first time that your child comes home, upset from school. And the first mistake is we solved the problem for them. Instead, we flip it and we go Oh, tell me what’s bothering you, sweetie pie, say the problem. That’s actually the term is stand sta and D it’s so simple. You can use that from toddler to teen s say the problem. t tell what said, Excuse me, stop and calm down. Take a deep breath, because you’re never going to be able to solve it. If you’re out of control t tell what’s bugging you say the problem. Don’t judge it, just say it. Okay, thank you for telling me that you’ve been bullied. As now let’s assess what else you can do differently. Let’s start brainstorming options. Keep a poker face because some of the ideas your kids are going to come up with are off the wall. But yeah, that’s one idea what’s another, you can add possibilities. And after about a minute, let’s start narrowing them. So which ones aren’t safe or wiser, responsible? Good, let’s decide on one and do it as T A and D. It’s simple, it’s easy. But maybe you just start with the ass. Let’s stop and calm down. And maybe that’s your first plan for the next month. Each skill is one that you can repetitively do in your homes, I suggest to parents put it on your refrigerator to remind you or your kid will remind your mom are supposed to be taking that stand, remember, and then you’ll find ways to weave it in until when your child can do it without you. You add the next skill, and the next and the next and the next. That’s how you raise resilient kids.

It sounds simple, and it certainly sounds doable. Now I’m curious, you are the mom of three boys yourself. Anything that you learned in your book that you wish you had known or perhaps wish you could have applied, you know your boys are adults now. But when they were younger, so much new research came in.

I think one of the ones that really was surprising to me now that I even though my kids are highly empathetic, I didn’t realize how much that has to do with helping kids thrive. We do know this is me Warner’s research that they have social competence. So if I was to look at that now because our children are facing social distancing, and many of them say they’re very lonely, we now have what’s called the loneliness epidemic. What do they need? When we look at social competence? We break it down into easiness. We know the kids. When I found this one, I went Whoa, highly competent kids use three skills. They say hello. You can’t smile with a mask but you can still smile with your eyes and you can still smile with your hand. So start waving saying hello as you’re going to the walks as you’re going for your kids to the supermarket.

So they began to adopt it because well liked kids say hello. Number two is they use eye contact. This is fascinating. If you really want a kid who’s bold and can stand up for themselves, then they can’t use wimpy body language, you can make one rule in your house, always look at the color of the talkers eyes, what happens is their head Hill is held up. And now what happens their whole body looks more confident. So always make a rule in your house starting at the age of two, thank you, sweetie pie, but always look at the color of mommy’s eyes when you’re talking to her. Or when you have a shy kid, look right here, because they still hold their head up. Our kids are texting and talking, they’re looking down, not up, it’s a problem, they’re not going to look confident. Third one is they encourage their friends, good team players, they haven’t been team playing for over 18 months. So play Chutes and Ladders play chess at home, but make one rule you got to encourage each other when you’re playing good job, dad, that was a great hi fi or elbow bump. You keep doing those beginning skills and you keep practicing them over and over again, then you add on more and more and more. But you start with the base.
Finally, one of the things that we really try to do here on where parents talk is to have an optimistic and, you know, hopeful, pragmatic approach that we can share with parents ultimately, because obviously it’s it’s easy to be very negative. So I’m curious, what gives you hope, Dr. Borba, in terms of this subject matter in terms of the fact that we have come through, and we’re living in a very uncertain time in this world. What gives you hope, moving forward for parents raising kids in this environment?

Well, first, thank you for bringing up hope, because it is number seven in the thriver traits that are most highly correlated to resilient children. They find silver linings and so to do we, it isn’t that we’re raising Pollyannas, we have to have a realistic base that these have been really tough times. But it’s also taking a moment to reset or parenting and realizing how critical optimism is the simplest thing we could do on that one is come up with an optimistic mantra in our own home. And it may be is you yourself, when you’re frustrated, go I got this, I’ll get through it. Or maybe it’s a family mantra, we’re strong we can do it. The fascinating thing about that is that you actually counter pessimism. And if pessimism keeps you going, it becomes permanent, pervasive, and it creates depression and anxiety. You can stop it by just creating a mantra in your home. We got this and if you keep saying that mantra over and over again, what happens is power of parenting. Your voice becomes your child’s inner voice and they will use that voice the rest of their lives. We forget the simple little everyday things in parenting can maximize and help our kids become resilient forever.

That is a wonderfully optimistic note to end on Dr. Michele Borba, author of the book Thrivers thank you so much for your time today.

You’re so welcome. Thank you


Against that backdrop, Dr. Borba — whose expansive clientele includes everyone from Sesame Street and military personnel to royalty —  delved even further to examine what key drivers create a child who thrives.

“What she [Werner] discovered that we all need to know is it wasn’t DNA, it wasn’t IQ, it wasn’t zip code,” continues Dr. Borba from her home state of California. “It was what parents or if not a parent, a coach, or a teacher was doing or a grandparent to help these kids learn to thrive — because thrivers are made not born.”

The results of her research yielded Borba’s 24th book called, Thrivers. It outlines seven teachable strengths that contribute to building a thriver.

“I think that we have a myth that resilience is locked into IQ or GPA,” says the mother of three adult children. “Break it, because it’s not. We have power and we can make or break our kids lives in terms of realizing it can be taught, regardless of temperament. Regardless of what’s going on with the child, we can make a difference.”

Among the seven character strengths that build thriving children: self-confidence, empathy, self-control and integrity.

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Dr. Borba also discusses:Thrivers book by Dr. Michele Borba

  • What to do to build a thriver
  • What to avoid in building a thriving child
  • What she learned in conducting research for the book
  • Simple strategies for parents to help build children who succeed

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