It was an overcast, early winter day. I looked out our back window. My kids and their cousin were dragging tree limbs and various objects across the driveway. Despite the chilly temps, a small seating area soon emerged and a roughshod structure was taking shape. A year before, we had created the lower, “main” fort in a small, unkempt area behind the garage. Dubbed “Fort Stycamore”, it was built into three trunks of a large sycamore tree and provided a small seating area far from the everyday requests. But on this particular day, it appeared that they had decided to expand their compound to an “upper” fort, not the last time a misshapen structure would dot our yard. Tired from their work, they eventually came inside to enjoy hot chocolate. Impromptu “thank yous” surfaced as they chatted about their newfound creation.
Over the years, I have watched our kids grow in various ways. I have seen them excited and curious at the newfound skink discovered near the garage. I have listened to a six year-old explain how he figured out how many bones are in his arms. I have seen them take on a project enthusiastically, whether pulling weeds in the driveway or cleaning up the yard. I have watched them refuse to stop running a trail until the lap is finished even though they were tired. I have heard them talk through something difficult with a sibling or a peer, and help someone feel better.
But make no mistake. These encounters are not necessarily commonplace; frequently, I see the opposite, too. The contrary behaviors spur many conversations between Amy and I, both in frustration and effort to improve.
For when it comes to what really counts, and makes us feel good inside, it’s when our kids demonstrate what I term the “seven soulful sights and sounds of parenting.” Sure I love when my son scores another goal, or when my daughter shows off her silly side. But if you want to know what moves me, what really reaches me on a transcendent, emotional level, it is when they show the seven character traits that matter most: gratitude, optimism, zest (excitement/energy), self-control, grit, social intelligence, and curiosity.
Stemming from the research of Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson, these traits are some of the most predictive qualities that exist. Give me any outcome that you desire (e.g., good relationships, successful career, contentment). Then I can show you how each of these qualities are intricately involved in its fruition. Few of us are probably surprised. But I would suspect that most of us are not regularly thinking in these terms, but rather engaged in the tasks and tediousness that each day brings.
No matter what the circumstance, they can and should be taught. KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, is a network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public charter schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life. There are currently 183 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia serving more than 70,000 students. More than 87 percent of their students are from low-income families and eligible for the federal free or reduced-price meals program, and 96 percent are African American or Latino. Nationally, more than 94 percent of KIPP middle school students have graduated high school, and more than 82 percent of KIPP alumni have gone on to college. The program is largely founded on character building around those seven soulful traits: zest, grit, self-control, optimism, social intelligence, curiosity, and gratitude.
When I think about my kids growing up, this is where my dreams increasingly lie. Sure, I would love for one of our kids to be the 2030 Master’s Champion. But not for one second would I give up the heart and soul of what matters for fame and fortune. The thought of it creates a hollowness in me that seems eerily familiar to some of the limbs that lie discarded behind the garage. But when I look out my front stoop, it is the large, sinewy trees that give me pause—for their reach, their grit, their beauty, and the character they add to our home.