It's common for some folks to fire off a simplistic answer to what kids need, like "good parents," or "a father and a mother."
The truth is that not all children have good parents, and giving birth or marrying a person of the opposite gender does not turn people into good parents. Not to mention, good parents don't guarantee perfect kids.
The experts say that giving children what they need is more complicated than that, but it is accessible to everyone, regardless of family configuration. And those who aren't parents can help offer "assets" and character-building to children with less-than-stellar (or overworked) parents.
These lists of assets are not exhaustive, but they are research-based, meaning that they work. Let's make sure our kids get what they need. We all pay if they don't.
In his book, "How Children Succeed—Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character" (Mariner Books, 2013), journalist Paul Tough looked at the efforts of two New York City schools—one public and one private—to supplement academics with character-building in their students.
In his book, as reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Tough warns that character "isn't about morality." He writes: "It's more about learning a set of skills to help kids achieve their goals."
That's good news if you think about it. Character can be broken into skills that can be learned and treated as a craft that can be honed and improved throughout life.
That fact also disproves myths that some kids are "bad kids" who cannot be helped.
Tough writes about seven character traits that the schools focused on—resulting in academic and interpersonal improvements.
Grit and Self-Control
Neuroscientists these days like to talk about "grit," or resilience, as an indicator of whether a person has the strength to do the hard work of being successful, as well as overcome tragedy and difficult challenges. Research psychologist and McArthur "genius" fellow Angela Lee Duckworth pushes grit, along with self-control, as the main predictors of success in young people. She defines grit as "the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals": that is, to stick to something long enough to succeed (as in school, college, music, sports, writing, etc.) Self-control is how you make short-term good decisions. Learn more about grit (and self-control) and find grit scales for adults and children at jfp.ms/gritscales. See Duckworth's TEDTalk on grit at jfp.ms/gritted.
Curiosity It's obvious, if sometimes elusive: We need to be curious to be great learners. We need to want to know.
"[R]esearch shows that it is a child's internal desire to learn (their curiosity), not external pressure, that motivates him to seek out new experiences and leads to greater success in school over the long term," the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families tells us (zerotothree.org). Kids need to be around adults who are mindful and interested in the world around them and encourage them to be.
Social Intelligence This is another biggie: socially (or emotionally) incompetent kids become troubled adults who have a tough time in relationships or having good attitudes at work. That is, children need good "people skills" to get along and cooperate with others.
Zest Merriam-Webster defines "zest" as "lively excitement: a feeling of enjoyment and enthusiasm." Sadly, many adults lose it by adulthood and then pass on their unhappiness and dull approach to life to their kids. If you have children, learn to get your zest on. Pursue your interests and focus on learning to love life. Model it, and teach your kids to do the same. If you live in tough circumstances, a dose of zest just might give you the energy to pull out and change it. And if you're mentoring a child in an unhappy family, be sure to bring zest and healthy excitement into their lives.
Optimism It's true: People who believe the future will be good are more likely to see (and help) that belief come true. And we believe in ourselves more when we accomplish tough tasks. Elizabeth Scott, M.S., advises families to help children experience success by giving them tasks from an early age, then give them credit for succeeding. Watch what it takes for them to succeed and then help them develop those skills, she says. Get more of her tips at jfp.ms/raiseoptimists.
Gratitude Turns out that your mama was right: It is healthy to give thanks. The focus of prayer is healthy, but you can take it even farther with your child. Have him do a short list every day (perhaps in a fun journal) of what he is grateful for. It can be anything: his new puppy, her teacher, a good grade, a cartoon, a sports figure. A gratitude list brings a sense of balance and grace to your child's life, and can become a life-long habit. Adults should do it, too, to fight stress and instill more mindfulness. Grateful children also tend to be healthier. (Same with adults.)
Ideas for Grateful Kids
Heather Johnson (theidearoom.net) has a super list of tips for instilling gratefulness in young people. They include:
- Start saying "no." If you give them everything they want, they don't learn to be grateful when they get what they want.
- Don't compare what you have (and don't) to others. It'll make you unhappy, too.
- Stop talking about material things like new houses and cars, or even clothes.
- Model saying "please" and "thank you" to everyone, from your kids to the office cleaning person.
- Give them opportunities to work and do chores. Make sure you don't communicate that work is bad and play is good. Stop the complaining about your job: They need to learn a good work ethic from you.
Read more at jfp.ms/gratitude.
The Socially Intelligent Child
- Start very young to build your child's interpersonal skills.
- Support their friendships and help them work through differences.
- Expect your child to relate to others the way you relate to her and others. Be respectful and tactful.
- Teach that all people are important, thus the reasons to be kind, on time and respectful.
These tips are from Dr. Laura Markham at jfp.ms/socialkids. Also see jfp.ms/socialkids2 and jfp.ms/socialkids3.
How to Raise Curious Adults
- Follow your children's lead. If they're interested in something, encourage them to learn more.
- Answer questions clearly and let them know if you don't know. Then, go learn together!
- Use the public library. It's a great place to go wander and find and pursue new interests. Just "read" the shelves until your child settles on something he or she wants to pursue.
- Ask your child open-ended questions to encourage them to think. And ask their opinions.
- Create interesting, stimulating environments. Think art, color, whimsy. Rotate to keep it fresh.
- Let them decide what to create and how. Coloring outside the lines can open minds.
- Be interested and mindful about the world around you: the stars, moon, flowers, art, animals, everything. Ask "why" a lot. Give yourself permission to wonder out loud—in front of your child. Do it often.
Adapted from zerotothree.org.
Curiosity: The Don'ts
Dr. Bruce Perry warns on scholastic.com that the "less-curious child will make fewer new friends, join fewer social groups, read fewer books, and take fewer hikes. The less-curious child is harder to teach because he is harder to inspire, enthuse and motivate." Here are three ways that adults snuff out a child's curiosity:
- Fear: "Fear kills curiosity. When the child's world is chaotic or when he is afraid, he will not like novelty. He will seek the familiar, staying in his comfort zone, unwilling to leave and explore new things. Children impacted by war, natural disasters, family distress, or violence all have their curiosity crushed."
- Disapproval: "'Don't touch. Don't climb. Don't yell. Don't take that apart. Don't get dirty. Don't. Don't. Don't.' Children sense and respond to our fears, biases and attitudes. If we convey a sense of disgust at the mud on their shoes and the slime on their hands, their discovery of tadpoles will be diminished."
- Absence: "The presence of a caring, invested adult provides two things essential for optimal exploration: 1) a sense of safety from which to set out to discover new things and 2) the capacity to share the discovery and, thereby, get the pleasure and reinforcement from that discovery."
Read more at jfp.ms/kill_curiosity.
Move Over, IQ:
"IQ was not the only difference between my best and my worst students. ... What we need in education is a much understanding of students and learning from a motivational perspective ...."
—Former public-school teacher and McArthur "genius" fellow Angela Lee Duckworth
How to Raise a Pessimist
Elisabeth Scott, M.S., warns on About.com about parental practices that, though well-meaning, can squelch your child's optimism.
- Don't praise when not warranted: "Optimism researcher Martin Seligman believes that telling a child that everything they do is great—rather than helping them experience real successes and persist in the face of reasonable obstacles—puts the child at a disadvantage, creating an overly strong self-focus and actually making them more vulnerable to depression."
- Avoid negative labels: "Correct unacceptable behavior, but don't label your child with negative labels—ever! Children tend to live up—or down—to our expectations, so if you say, 'Jack's our whiner,' or 'Lucy's our shy child,' what may have been a passing phase becomes a more permanent identity. This is much more damaging to a child's self-concept than some parents realize, and it perpetuates the very behavior you find so objectionable."
- Don't be a poor example: "Children watch us and see us as constant examples, whether we like it or not. The good news about this is that we can teach by doing. Practice optimistic thinking yourself. When you achieve success, don't downplay it with false modesty, but give yourself credit for a job well done. When things go wrong, don't catastrophize; put things in perspective."
Many Ways to Help Children
In our research for this issue, we ran into a delightful March 1999 Rotarian article reposted by Dr. Bob Ingram of the Miami-Dade County School Board listing 100 ways to help children. Here are a sampling of the ideas; go to jfp.ms/rotarian for a full list. Then pick a handful and bring it.
- Take a child to a zoo, museum, or amusement park.
- Volunteer to be a Big Brother or Big Sister to a child from a single-parent family.
- Provide children with opportunities for diversity; let them interact with kids who have disabilities, or are of different religious, racial or ethnic backgrounds.
- Help them establish goals for their studies, careers and lives in general.
- Instill in them belief and pride in their own capabilities.
- Invite single parents and their children to attend your club's family-oriented activities.
- Be a good listener whenever you talk with a child so that they feel heard and worthy of your attention.
- Offer to babysit for your single-parent relatives and friends.
- Read to children often.
- Take a child outside and show them the wonders to be found in a patch of grass, garden or yard.
- Teach children a skill they will have for a lifetime, such as drawing, swimming or dancing.
- Arrange for local churches, schools, and other facilities to serve as shelters for homeless children and their families when not in use.
- Help instill in children the concept of service to others by taking them on a field trip to a Rotary Club service project, such as an orphanage, soup kitchen, nursing home.
- Help establish a quality day-care program for children of single, low-income parents who work or are looking for work.
- Help impoverished city children broaden their perspective and enrich their lives by taking them for a day in the country, highlighting activities such as hiking, swimming, fishing or canoeing.