/ Nov 17, 2020

Gratitude, Curiosity, and Building Character in Teens

Dr. Angela Duckworth, psychologist, scientist, founder, and CEO of Character Lab and best-selling author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance believes character is made up of three areas of development that parents should nurture in their teens. 

In Part 1 of our Q&A series conducted with experts, authors, and newsmakers, Eden Pontz, Executive Producer at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, speaks with Dr. Duckworth about these key developmental areas. She shares practical ways parents can build important strengths like gratitude, curiosity and more. And in the spirit of giving, be sure to check out Part 2 of our interview in which she gets into the nitty gritty of grit and its benefits!   

EP: What are some important character strengths for teens to develop as they move into adulthood?

AD: When I think about character, I think of it as being not one thing, but honestly many things. I think of grit. I think of curiosity. I think of intellectual humility, kindness, generosity, and the list is very long. But I like to group them into three categories of character strengths. So there are strengths of heart, like gratitude and generosity, really those are the strengths that enable us to be a good person to other people and to give and receive love in various ways. The second group is strengths of mind: curiosity, intellectual humility, being open-minded, creativity. These are strengths that enable us to fully develop as thinking, dreaming, imagining people. And then finally, what I study personally as a scientist: strengths of will, like grit and self-control and optimism. I believe that completely developing as a person, who lives a life that’s good for themselves and good for others, requires character strengths in each of these three families. So not only is grit not enough, it’s not enough to say that grit and self-control are enough because that’s just strengths of will. It’s strengths of heart, mind, and will, that offers a complete view of the development of a good person.

EP: What would you say to parents who want to help their teens discover their passion and interests?

AD: The advice I give is based on scientific research. The development of your interests and your eventual vocation is not an overnight process. It takes years to  grow an interest and to learn something enough to say, “Hey, I want to do this for the rest of my life.” We need to have a little patience with ourselves, and we need to try stuff out.

I think the most important thing is that kids are given opportunity and encouragement. For example, they might try out for soccer. Maybe they’ll discover after a season of soccer that they don’t want to play, but they’re going to learn a lot. Or, they might say, “You know what, I might want to be a doctor someday.” Those kids should be given the opportunity and encouragement to spend a day with a doctor. They’ll learn more being with that doctor for a day than just sitting in their bedroom thinking they might want to be a doctor. Feed their curiosity.

 EP: Why is curiosity important and what happens to it as we age?

AD: Curiosity, very simply, is wanting to know. And if you think of a baby or a toddler, of course, it makes sense that they want to know everything. “What’s that?” What happens to that curiosity as we get older? Well, unfortunately, at least in school, when you look at curiosity and engagement in what kids are learning, it kind of goes down from fifth grade through senior year. There is less and less curiosity with each passing season. 

I think it’s a tragedy for two reasons. One is that curiosity is a hallmark of real entrepreneurs and high achievers. Who does anything great in the world without being curious and wanting to know more? The CEOs, the top athletes, the community organizers, doctors, all these people are curious individuals. That’s one of the reasons why we wouldn’t want to allow curiosity, as a flame, to flicker out as kids get older. And the second reason is that curiosity is an end in itself. Even if it doesn’t predict some later life outcome, isn’t it something we would want all of our children to have for life? So I think curiosity should be preserved and encouraged as much as it can be.

EP: How can parents help encourage their children to explore their curiosity?

AD: One practical idea is for kids of any age to spend at least five minutes every day asking questions and exploring their curiosity, even if it doesn’t lead to their SAT score being higher or some chore being done. Just asking the questions that naturally come to mind. We let young kids do this, but if you have a 16-year-old at home, you might say, “Well, how many minutes yesterday or today were devoted to just asking questions about what piqued your curiosity?” If the answer is not much or none at all, then I think that gives you the idea that there needs to be more time and permission given for that.   

EP: You’ve touched on strengths of mind and will. Can you offer suggestions for parents that want to encourage strengths of heart, like gratitude, in their children as well?

AD: Gratitude is a great character strength to think about. It’s a question that many parents ask because they sometimes observe that their kids are not as grateful as they would expect them to be. It’s an experience that I’ve had myself. I think to myself, “Hmm. I woke up at 5:00 in the morning to make you lunch. Maybe a moment of appreciation would be nice.” My first recommendation is to make it an easy thing for kids to do. So, give your kids thank-you notes as a present at holiday times. That way, it’s not impossible for them to whip off a note to their Auntie for what they were given. Ask yourself, is it easy for kids to observe you saying thank you to others? Create an environment where offering appreciation and gratitude are easy to do. In addition to thank-you notes or gratitude letters, some parents like to encourage their kids to keep a gratitude journal, which is to write something down they are thankful for each day. Or, I know many families, including our own, who start every meal with just a moment of gratitude, a moment to give thanks. It’s a nice way of making it a routine, so you don’t forget to think about what good things happened. 

I started a habit, and it changed the way I wake up in the morning. I do my “Three good things” where I account for what I enjoyed in the last 24-hours, whether it be a conversation I had with my sister, or other small things. Those are things that I would maybe overlook if I didn’t have this routine. Human attention naturally goes to our problems, our anxieties, the things that we have to fix, the things on our to-do lists that we didn’t get to. Sometimes we need a routine or ritual, like a national holiday, to remind us that there are lots of things that we should appreciate and that we can appreciate.

Enjoy this? Check out Part 2 of our Q&A with Dr. Duckworth where we explore the importance of grit and how to nurture it in your teens. 

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