Educational psychologist and best-selling author, Dr. Michele Borba discusses her new book Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. Dr. Borba spoke at Forty Carrots Family Center’s 20th Annual Free Educational Community Speaker Event in September presented in partnership with the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

What sort of activities should we get our kids into that will help them become the “Thrivers” of your new book? DR. MICHELE BORBA  An ideal situation for raising a kid, particularly in this day and age, is to give them opportunities, like sports and other after-school activities, where they are able to handle challenges and handle them on their own. A “thriver” is a child who says, "I got this," and it's a child who, first of all, is not assisted by the parent to develop that confidence, and second, each little challenge is going to be within the child's means. The child begins to realize “I can handle the stress,” and that's what we need. We can't protect our kids and sugarcoat things for them. He's discovering something that he's going to enjoy doing. As a result, he can use that for the rest of his life.

How do you find the right activities for your family and your child? BORBA  When you are boosting resilience in a child, it's not a cookie-cutter approach. You have got to find what works for your family and what works for the child. You have to keep repeating the experience so the child eventually can learn to love it without you, and pretty soon, he's pulling you, you're not pulling the child. And as a result, he is developing the first skill of a thriver, which is confidence. “I know my own strengths. Here's what I discovered about myself.” I think we've got to keep in mind that it's who our child is, not what we want them to become.

How do we navigate our complex and seemingly very contentious modern society, while not putting the issues of the adult world on our kids? BORBA  I love the question because number one: We parent based on the culture we are raising our children in. Our kids haven't changed, they arrive pretty much the same as they have throughout time. The culture that we are raising them in has dramatically changed. Our children are dealing with more adversity, more uncertainty, more fear, not just ours, but theirs. And it's a very different world, where they're seeing such visual images that are so graphic and so disturbing. Those alone would be a wakeup call for us to say, “The world is changing, it's not like we're going back to the regular old normal. It's a new normal, and we've got to upgrade our sense of our parenting."

The second thing is we need a new parenting roadmap. In all fairness to us, we all love our kids desperately and we all want them to succeed. That's the given. And I think for the longest time, we were also told that the GPA and the test score was the certain path to success, but there was more to the story. I started looking at this over ten years ago when I saw some very disturbing changes in American kids. One in five American children was going to be diagnosed with some mental health disorder. We realized that it’s vital that our kids are able to handle challenges and adversity to succeed. Then came the pandemic, and the CDC told us it's now one in three. Many of our kids tell me when I do focus groups, "But we haven't been raised to be resilient. We've been raised to beat the test score." So, there's the wakeup call. What I'm trying to do is give you a slightly different roadmap. Don't throw out everything here, but let's also realize that our kids need to be able to handle challenges, adversity, and handle stress. Otherwise, it rises. Those anxiety levels go up, up, up. Depression goes up, up, up, and that's not a healthy, happy child.

Our kids have just experienced something very different—The pandemic. Trying to avoid an illness is not, “look for a car before you cross the street,” it was like a ghostly threat—a threat you can't see and can't predict. BORBA  Yes. And what we've all learned— the grownups and the kids alike—is that one of the things that really boosts our stress is not being able to control the dynamics of what's happening in life. You can't change the outside world. That's for sure. You can't change and get rid of the pandemic. That's for sure. But how you choose to respond is on us. We've got to give our kids different ways to manage stress and stop the pessimism. So it doesn't erode them. The schools are also saying this. I talk to schools all over the country. I was just in Sarasota last week and they're seeing changes. The kids' behavior is more irritable, on edge. They're a little more socially anxious. Their separation anxiety is going up again with the five-year-olds. There's behavior regressions–that is not a natural phenomenon. It’s the result of stress building and kids feeling unable to control it.

How can a parent think about building integrity in their kids while not falling into a trap of thinking their kids have to be photocopies? BORBA  Let's look at the “why” factor. When I was writing Thrivers, my goal was to identify the strengths that are teachable, that are highly correlated to resilience, that also improve mental health, but also raise up good people. I ended up finding that there are seven that really seem to matter most that we can teach at any age. It's a rare kid that has all seven, but one of those is integrity. Children who are able to bounce back have a strong moral code, because some kinds of challenges aren't going to be the bump in the road. That comes down to us as the parent, because you're not born with any of these strengths. You have to teach them and nurture them. And maybe the first question for us is to ask ourselves, let’s pretend that our kids are grown and they're 40, and we're at a family reunion and the kids are describing our family and what we stood for–what are they describing? And what do we think are the most important things that matter to them? Yes, we want them to be successful and happy, those are the givens, but what are the traits we want to see in those kids? I'd hope integrity would be one of them. Now, how do you get that way? Number one, “example”. I'd always watch my dad or my mom. And they were the epitome of kindness. Or my grandmother–she really demonstrated respect. The second thing was it was “expected”. Kids with high integrity, say, "In my family, we were expected to be honest or kind or respectful or responsible." Whatever it was, it was expected. The third thing that was fascinating is “experiences”. The children that had experiences doing charitable deeds. They might say, “We went across the street and we gave to the homeless person” or “We invited people who didn't have enough dinner each night to our house.” They experienced virtue. So, it became a verb, not a noun. And as a result, they saw themselves being the virtue and they caught it and became it. I think that's powerful and a lesson to all of us. So, ask yourself, when's the last time you did any of those?

In your book, you talked about modeling virtue, and kindness. there are parents who would say “It isn't a virtuous world and I don't want my child to be vulnerable. I don't want my child to be a victim.” How do we answer that concern? BORBA  Well, the last thing you want is your child to be is a victim. You want your child to have the virtue, but you also want your child to be able to figure out how to stand up and speak for himself. Teach the skill “CALM”, C-A-L-M. Anytime you disagree with someone, you can speak up and defend yourself, but also remember “C” which is to stay calm. Stay calm when you want to defend yourself. “A” is assert yourself. Figure out why you feel that way and what matters to you. So you can stick up for yourself or the other person. “L” is when you want to stick up for yourself, look the person in the eye. This is fascinating. What we discovered is today's kids are looking down, not up, because they've been looking at those screens so often. And when we also look at children who are more likely to be assertive and advocate or be strong and be bold and actually defend themself or another, they don't look down. They hold their head up and their whole body, as a result, looks more confident. We've looked at hundreds of footage of which kids are less likely to be bullied. It's a child who always looks into other people's eyes. “M” is to make your voice be strong and firm. You can have your child practice this, use your voice and practice saying, “Stop it. Stop it.” And from age two on, follow the rule, don't speak for your child, let your child speak for themselves.

In the chapter on integrity, you talked about having family meetings. BORBA  It is intimidating. All of this is, but here's a little trick that we all got to keep in mind. I don't care if it's you as a parent with your expectations and what are you going to implement in your own home or is it your expectation for your child or a teacher's expectation for a child, your expectations are always what I call the rubber band technique. Your goal is to figure out where you are right now and gently stretch yourself little bit, little bit, little bit without snapping your spirit or your children's spirit. You begin with, "Okay, I'm going to start with 30 seconds, around the dinner hour, and we're just going to have 30 seconds of 'how was your day?’” and gradually stretch yourself. Many parents say the best thing that they've discovered is the carpool. Use those moments. Turn off the radio, put the phone down, and just talk until finally you start rebuilding the relationships with you and your child. By the way, the coolest thing is that anytime you want to have a conversation with your child, and they haev a different idea than you and you want them to have their voice, turn to your child and say, "Convince me, why do you think that way?" And when you do that, you're going to have children who can also be open to ideas and possibilities