Character Fuels Success. And the Best News: It’s Teachable!
Dr. Michele Borba has spent her entire career studying what makes tweens and teens thrive. She even wrote a book about it. Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine has just come out in paperback, and Allison Gilbert, senior writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, got to sit down with her to discuss best tips and advice.
Character is about having strong values and morals. It’s about being your best self even when no one else is watching you. In this Q & A, Allison and Dr. Borba discuss why character is so essential to teen success and how it’s never too late to teach it.
Allison Gilbert: Congratulations on receiving the Sanford N. McDonnell Award for Lifetime Achievement in Character Education. Why has studying character been such an important focus for you?
Michele Borba: I am convinced that if we really want to raise good human beings, what we have to do is talk about character. And when I look at children who are most likely to thrive and be happy, it’s the children with character who tend to be the most successful.
AG: What can parents do to help their teen develop character?
MB: Parents have the ability to boost character development as soon as they realize that character matters. Just by paying attention to it, parents help enormously. And it’s so important! Character is critical to a teen’s ability to be resilient and successful in the classroom. Perseverance and self-control, for example, allow students to stay focused. And, if you want to raise a good person — and who doesn’t? – and you want to be proud and say, ‘That’s my kid,’ you want to focus on character. And the good news is that character is teachable.
AG: How is character teachable? Let’s begin with “confidence.”
MB: A secret to building confidence in teens is for them to have a hobby, even a simple one. Music or books or knitting. It doesn’t make a difference what the hobby is, but the hobby boosts their confidence. Confidence is not only a strong belief in yourself – it’s also a strong understanding of ‘who I am’ and ‘what my strengths are.’ Hobbies are also great because they help teens relax and de-stress.
AG: You also talk about “curiosity.” How does “curiosity” play a role in helping adolescents with stress and anxiety?
MB: Curiosity keeps coming up as a benchmark for kids who are thrivers. A teen who is curious has a real superpower. Because when push comes to shove and they face a challenge, they’re open to ideas and possibilities for how to solve it. They’re able to find their way through and around it. And these teens also don’t wait to be rescued. They don’t wait for Mom or Dad to come in and say, ‘Oh, it’s OK, I’ll do it.’ As a result, they’re able to build that confidence, and they keep going forward.
AG: How can parents help their teen develop curiosity?
MB: Anytime your teen has a problem, don’t be so quick to say, ‘Here’s what to do, Sweetie.’ Instead, sit down and say, ‘What’s the problem?’ or ‘What’s bugging you?’ Don’t judge it. Just listen. And then say, ‘Oh, I get it. So, what’s one thing you can do differently next time?’ And after that, you can continue the conversation by encouraging your teen to keep brainstorming solutions.
AG: You say it’s never too late to teach these traits. Can you offer a real-life example that will help parents begin these kinds of conversations with their teen?
MB: Let’s use the example of empathy – the ability to think ‘we’ and not ‘me.’ If a teen says to you, ‘I’m worried about the neighbor next door. She’s 80, and she’s all by herself, and I think she’s feeling a little lonely.’ There’s your moment to say: ‘Good for you to think about her. What can you do to help her?’
Allow your teen to come up with the idea that will help. And if the answer is baking cookies, the most important next question to ask your teen is this: ‘How will you deliver them to her?’ Because once your son or daughter delivers those cookies face-to-face (being careful to social distance, of course!), he or she will see the neighbor’s reaction. They’ll say, ‘I saw the look in her eye. I saw her smile. I saw her tear up. I realize I did something really good, Mom.’ And that will feel really good and will likely drive them to perform more acts of kindness.
AG: My last question is related to your book, Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me. The book offers guidance on making and keeping friends. If your teenager has experienced regularly being left out, what strategies do you suggest for changing that pattern?
MB: Tweens and teens find friends based on similar values or interests. For parents of younger teens, figure out what they want to learn. Try to avoid sending them to lessons alone. Instead, send them to lessons with another student. You can also teach friendship skills. Number one, Be Friendly. Say, ‘Hello.’ Wave. Number two, encourage them to look into the eyes of the person who is speaking to them. Number three, encourage your son or daughter to be encouraging to others. Telling classmates ‘Good job,’ or offering fist and elbow bumps. These small efforts go a long way to building friendships.