Supporting kids to thrive is a complex and dynamic process. Every kid is different, and even supporting one child changes as they grow older and are changing themselves. But the most recent data on kids and wellbeing points to some common themes – or skills – that help kids thrive all over the world.
Supporting Kids to Thrive
What’s the current state of wellbeing for kids?
And what can we do about it?
So what are these skills that kids need to thrive? The ability to engage intrinsic motivation, exercise optimism, and pursue noble goals are the most predictive of wellbeing for kids.
Engage Intrinsic Motivation
Being driven by internal values.
Developing an outlook of possibility.
Pursue Noble Goals
Infusing purpose into your every day actions.
We’ll take a look at each of them individually, but it’s fascinating to think about what they indicate when taken as a whole: “All of them have to do with that internal power, taking ownership of your life,” says Six Seconds’ CEO Josh Freedman. “If a child has these three competencies, they feel that fire inside, they see possibilities, and there is something they want to contribute to the world, all three of these have a connection with internal efficacy.”
Supporting Kids to Thrive:
Engage Intrinsic Motivation
Engaging intrinsic motivation means being energized by personal values and commitments rather than external forces. It’s what Josh Freedman calls getting in touch with “that fire within,” being energized by passion, personal values, and a sense of purpose, rather than external factors. In Six Seconds’ research, intrinsic motivation predicted 20% of the variation in wellbeing scores. Kids and adults who have developed powerful values and are driven by them have that enthusiasm about life that is a hallmark of wellbeing. Those who feel directed more by external forces don’t feel as consistently alive and well, and this can be a problem for kids, whose lives are often packed with commitments that they didn’t choose. Supporting kids to thrive means giving them control over their lives when its appropriate, and bestselling author Daniel Pink goes as far as calling control the fuel of intrinsic motivation. Because only with some autonomy can kids act based on their passion and personal values.
The founder of Outward Bound has a wonderful saying, “Are you a passenger or are you crew?” that captures this need to support children to be crew in their own lives, instead of only passengers.
But supporting kids to thrive by engaging intrinsic motivation needs to start at a young age. “We socialize children from a very young age to please somebody else,” says Freedman, and put too much focus on the external: “Your validity as a student, and in some ways as a person, is the grades you get, which is external, the college you get into, which is external, and the number of likes you get, which is external.” And this can infringe upon their development of this crucial skill of engaging intrinsic motivation. Six Seconds’ Founder and President Anabel Jensen agrees: “We have to teach children to do a better job of evaluating themselves. What do you think about what you did? How would you rate yourself on how much effort you put into it? Was it equal to the pleasure you got from it? So there’s more coming from inside and less coming from outside.” The more we help kids focus on the internal, the better they will feel. And considering this skill is predictive of wellbeing in adults as well as children, it could very well be a lifelong gift.
What’s another skill that predicts wellbeing in children? The ability to exercise optimism.
Supporting Kids to Thrive:
Exercising optimism means strengthening your ability to have an outlook of possibility. “Knowing there are possibilities even when you can’t see them,” as Josh Freedman put it. This is the sense of resiliency that is an essential part of authentic wellbeing. Adversity is a part of life, and that’s why it’s essential to have the tools to deal with setbacks and generate new options for ourselves. People who have cultivated this ability generally score high in wellbeing because they can see many different paths that lead to what they truly want. People who don’t have have this skill, whether kids or adults, feel stuck more often. In Six Seconds’ research, this ability to exercise optimism predicted 16% of the variation in wellbeing scores.
Six Seconds’ Founder and President Anabel Jensen says optimism is essential to wellbeing “because it helps us to deal with those daily adversities. The research is clear that we have somewhere around 20 adversities on a daily basis. Some are teeny tiny and some are more complicated and personal. But the skill is the same, and it’s the acronym TIE. Remember that the adversity is temporary, the adversity is isolated, and in the end, your effort is going to make the difference.” Kids who have the skills of optimism bounce back more quickly, and that leads to higher wellbeing overall.
Engaging intrinsic motivation is largely focused on the bigger picture: what’s motivating you? Exercising optimism is largely focused on every day challenges – and how to overcome them. The final skill that is predictive of wellbeing, pursuing noble goals, combines these two. It’s about bringing the bigger picture into your every day life.
Supporting Kids to Thrive:
Pursue Noble Goals
Pursuing noble goals means knowing what you want to contribute to the world, what makes you come alive, and then infusing that into your every day actions: “Feeling and seeing a long-term vision and putting that into action in your daily life.” Your noble goal is a sort of north star that you can refer back to when making all types of decisions: Does this bring me closer to my noble goal, or do I need to pause, evaluate, and think about my options? In Six Seconds’ research, noble goals predicted 14% of the variation in wellbeing scores.
First of all, having a noble goal is an essential component of engaging intrinsic motivation. To follow your purpose, you first have to know what that purpose is. But also, having a clear noble goal helps you focus on what is most important and access your full power and potential. For kids to be crew in their own lives, it’s essential for them to have some sense, coming from within, of where they want to go, and what they want to contribute to the world. When they have that, even the smallest actions are infused with a sense of vibrancy and purpose – and that feels really good.
What Is Wellbeing? Six Seconds’ global office team shares their insights into wellbeing.
“A sense of energy, vitality, and excitement about life.”Dr. Susan Stillman
“Being happy with who you are and where you are in your life.”Lorea Martinez
“Having your basic needs met and a sense of resiliency.”Tommasso Procicchiani
Supporting Kids to Thrive: Are Kids Thriving Equally?
Six Seconds gathered this data by having kids age 7 to 18, all over the world, take the youth version of the SEI, the world’s leading emotional intelligence assessment. The good news is that youth wellbeing is on the rise: from 2015 to 2017, we saw a 4% increase in youth wellbeing scores. The bad news is that, on average, wellbeing scores seem to drop as kids enter their teenage years. Check out this graph of youth wellbeing scores, broken up into 3 age groups.
The particular challenges for teenagers are something that many of our Six Seconds team members have noticed in schools and in their own homes. Freedman says that “the level of anxiety and stress for teenagers is a pandemic, all over the world.”
Why would teenagers be struggling more?
We often create an environment for teenagers in which the conditions for wellbeing are hard to meet. SEL Consultant Lorea Martinez says the root of the problem is in how we define success for teenagers in Western society. As parents try to help their kids get into the best colleges, expectations have skyrocketed to take more AP classes and be engaged in as many after school activities as possible. As a result, “we are paying less attention to the value of spending an afternoon doing nothing, going on a hike in nature, or just playing. I think that the free time that kids used to have where nothing is scheduled is almost gone from the lives we live in the US and other Western countries.” And a tightly scheduled life is one without room for much control, that essential component for engaging intrinsic motivation. And this at a time in their lives (puberty) when teens feel a biological push to be their own person, and separate from the wants and desires of their parents. When you combine this with the external focus of wanting to fit in and get likes on social media, it’s a perfect storm for low intrinsic motivation – and as a result, low wellbeing scores.
Recent data shows that from ages 7 to 18, wellbeing declines as kids get older. Here are a few ways to combat that trendClick to tweet
Supporting Kids to Thrive: So What Can I Do?
So what are some guidelines or tips for supporting kids to thrive? Based on our research, I recommend starting with these steps:
Give kids the space and power to choose what they want. Now there is obviously a caveat here that kids need – and want – support and structure. But especially as kids grow up, be open-minded and constantly examine ways that you can empower them to make their own decisions and choose their own destiny. That is the way to leverage these drivers of wellbeing.
Anabel Jensen, Six Seconds’ Founder, encourages parents and teachers to empower kids: “I want to find a way for kids to have more control: more control in their lives with their families, more control in their lives at school.” That way they can choose to follow their passion and engage their own intrinsic motivation.
Model what it looks like to focus on these wellbeing skills. Even teenagers who “want nothing to do” with their parents are actually looking at what they do as an example. In fact, they will be the first ones to point out hypocrisy when they see it. So a key part of supporting kids to thrive is thriving yourself. Follow your own passions and be energized by your personal values. Be open about your noble goals and how that looks in your every day life – even if that means calling yourself out when you don’t act the way you want to (and with the exhaustion and frustration that comes with parenting, especially teenagers, this is inevitable). Hone your own ability to exercise optimism. Be the change you wish to see, and it will be much more powerful.
Encourage kids to have down time. Resist the urge to over schedule extracurricular activities or AP classes. It’s easier said than done considering the pressure that is often there from schools and other parents, but it’s essential to wellbeing. On a personal level, I remember being stressed and even depressed by the academic load at my prestigious college prep school. And the load did force me to learn me how to be successfully academically, but I also feel like I am still working through some of the bad habits that those stressful times impressed upon me personally. At the heart of wellbeing is balance. Practice it yourself and give your kids the time to practice it themselves.
But supporting kids to thrive is definitely not a one-size-fits-all type of thing. Do you have any advice for parents in terms of what has worked for you, with your child? I’d love to hear from you and what you think about these tips. Write a comment below!