Great Kids

Helping Your Baby and Child Develop the Ten Essential Qualities for a Healthy, Happy Life


By Stanley I. Greenspan

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Parents all over the world have certain universal aspirations. They want their children to contribute meaningfully to society and to pursue their own dreams. But we appear to be missing the essentials. In this inspiring book, based on 30 years of research and practice, Dr. Stanley Greenspan redefines the qualities of an emotionally and intellectually healthy child and identifies the ways that parents can help their children develop each quality. The qualities that make us call a child a “great kid,” such as empathy, curiosity, and logical thinking, are fundamental and underlie all the academic, athletic, and social talents that a child might develop. We are not born with these traits, Greenspan demonstrates, they come from experience, which suggests that each and every parent can encourage them and that each and every child can strive to acquire them.


Great Kids

Great Kids

Helping Your Baby and Child Develop the Ten Essential Qualities for a Happy, Healthy Life


This book is dedicated to all the children of the world. They all have within them the potential to be great kids. It’s our job to create a great world where this potential can flourish.


A lot is expected of children today. For many years, as a businessman, I’ve been interested in the kinds of competency needed for success in a rapidly changing world. As technology and modes of communication advance at warp speed, the traits needed in order to shape a full and successful life have also changed. Schools, companies, professional organizations, even professional sports teams, have come to realize that being “smart” or having great physical skill is not enough to succeed now in our world. The batteries of tests they give to prospective applicants try to uncover what lies “beneath,” that is, what can we expect from this person above and beyond the usual? Savvy admissions directors and employers are looking for qualities such as emotional balance, logical thinking, discipline, ability to function under pressure, self-confidence, the ability to lead, etc. They’ve learned from their own past experience that these qualities are, if anything, more imperative for success than specific talents or “brains.”

Thirty years ago, when I looked into this question of essential traits, I was fortunate to learn about a group of professionals in early child development who were meeting regularly to share their research into the most basic needs of children and how parents can meet them. Among these forward-thinking individuals were Reginald Lourie, T. Berry Brazelton, Stanley Greenspan, Selma Freiberg, Albert Solnit, Sally Provence, Ron Lally, Julius Richmond, Peter Neubauer, Leon Yarrow, and Robert Nover. I was invited to participate and, after just one meeting, it was clear to me that we had a golden opportunity to do something meaningful for kids. This group welcomed the help of a businessman and together we created an organization devoted to helping families raise socially, emotionally, and cognitively healthy children. Thus, Zero to Three was born.

Today we have a multidisciplinary board of thirty-five experts in various fields and a marvelous and talented staff of more than seventy-five executing a budget approaching fifteen million dollars annually. Our goal is to give parents the information and support they need to do the best job possible. Although love is the most important ingredient in a parent-child relationship, it is just not enough. As parents, we must be informed if we want our kids to go out confidently into the world, to be happy and successful. I learned in business that it was more important to work smart than to work hard. Being a great parent today means being a smart parent.

In witnessing the impressive work of each of the brilliant clinicians in our organization, I was particularly drawn to the ideas of Stanley Greenspan, especially to his practice with developmentally challenged children. Instead of limiting therapy to behavioral training and the rote learning of simple tasks, he works to get inside the psyche of his patients. The result is not only a more cognitively accomplished child but a warm child with a healthy full range of emotions. Some of these kids bore a diagnosis of autism or speech delay, which turned out to be wrong. I have seen this with my own eyes. After twenty years of witnessing these minor (major to the parents) miracles, it occurred to me that if Stanley Greenspan could accomplish this with challenged children, we could apply this knowledge to help all our kids become richer in qualities that are paramount in life.

How to identify universally valuable qualities described in this book? We first compiled a broad list. We then needed to cull this list and get consensus on qualities that most of us would agree are critical to success in life. The traits selected were ones that child development experts, parents, and business leaders all valued as qualities important for kids to develop in order to become healthy, successful adults. It was important that parents value these traits so that they would want to encourage them. It was important that child development experts agree on the characteristics that are valuable not only in childhood but also for the later challenges that come with adolescence, marriage, career, parenthood. It was important to satisfy the various professional people we polled who knew very well what qualities were most important for success in their fields. With that first long list, we then asked a great range of people to choose the “must have” qualities, and to rank them. This group, spread across the United States and Canada, included professionals in medicine, law, the arts, education, and executives from all kinds of organizations. All had experience seeing how some people succeeded and some failed, and why. Spouses or partners answered independently. Bringing my own preconceived notions to the table, I was sure that men would rank the qualities differently than women, and that businessmen would have a different take than educators. People in the technical fields would respond differently than those in the arts. We all assumed that easterners see things differently than westerners or those in the Midwest. We also assumed that the various cultural groups would respond differently. Wrong in every case! People responded completely as individuals and came up with a set of nearly universally valued qualities. There was agreement across gender, professions, and cultures.

Irving Harris, a board member, my idol as a philanthropist, and a very astute thinker, had suggested that we add “inquisitiveness” to the broad list. Our respondents confirmed this, usually under the label “curiosity.” A social scientist might say that this list reflects the values of upscale America. It is true that the people polled were successful in their careers, not necessarily wealthy, but successful. However, their backgrounds differed greatly. Looking at the challenges facing a child in the early twenty-first century (the only way we can make a judgment), these qualities struck our respondents and ourselves as being essential. One would be very right in saying that there are other important qualities, but a child equipped with the ten described here would have a major head start in life.

The good news in this book is that parents can encourage the development of qualities in their children that many wise people think are vital for a full and accomplished life. In short, they can “raise the bar” for their kids. Encouraging these important traits requires a lot of competence in parents as well. Recognizing the new expectations facing children today, many parents are searching for just the kind of clear guidance offered in this book.

As you will see, the focus is not on IQ or great talent. Success in life and career depends on multiple abilities. The qualities you will read about here, such as emotional balance, logical thinking, internal discipline, self-awareness, and empathy, are the foundations without which brilliant intelligence and talents may flounder.

Globalization, environmental threats, new technologies, and political conflict will challenge the next generation worldwide. In this smaller and flatter world, the most important thing that we can do is give our kids the qualities needed to survive and thrive.

Bernard Levy
Co-Director, Infant Development Specialist Program
Floortime Foundation ™


I would like to thank Sarah Mahoney, who made essential contributions to this work. Her gifted illustrative examples and lively writing style are reflected in the spirit and content of Great Kids. I also want to thank Nancy Breslau Lewis for her vital help in the writing of some of the sections of this work. I’d also like to express my appreciation to Sue Morrisson for her administrative support, to Sarah Miller for the many ways in which she helps the families we work with, and to Jan Tunney who also provided administrative support in the early stages of this book.

I can’t express enough appreciation to Merloyd Lawrence who brings a sensitivity and organization in the way she edits. She has made the book Great Kids live up to the characteristics that we find in great kids.

Growing Great Kids

You know who they are. They’re the fourth-grade boys who dash out to be first to greet their teacher and help her unload her car. They’re the sixteen-year-old girls who invite a new classmate to sit with them at lunch. They’re the toddlers who take turns and shout with glee at the slide, and the infants who gaze lovingly into their mothers’ eyes.

They’re great kids. How many times have you said, “That Josh is a great kid” or “I like my daughter’s soccer teammates. They’re great kids.” We hear the phrase often, and we know what we mean when we say it. We’re not talking about kids who get 1600s on their combined SATs or tennis champions or music prodigies—although of course those kids, too, can be great kids. We’re talking about the lively, independent, friendly, and optimistic young people so many of us are lucky to know. Despite all the bad news about children today that seems to clog the airwaves, anyone who lives or works with kids knows that there’s good news, too.

“Great kids” are emotionally and intellectually healthy people. “Great” doesn’t refer to a specific temperamental quality, such as boldness; nor does it depend on athletic skills or on musical or mathematical or artistic talent. Great kids come in all varieties. And, given the right nurturing and encouragement, all kids can be great kids.

Emotional and intellectual health involves some fundamental abilities and traits that underlie the skills and talents children may eventually develop. These abilities and traits have to do with how children (and adults) relate to one another and to the outside world. They begin to form in infancy and make possible the pursuit of success, wisdom, and rich relationships at every stage of life.

Engagement and empathy, for instance, begin with the first parent/infant exchanges and continue to fuel our understanding of, and caring for, the community and world we live in. Curiosity and logical thinking are the foundations of any kind of academic study, innovation, and organizational leadership. And without building the crucial abilities of self-awareness, emotional balance, and discipline, the potential of even the most gifted child will be at risk.

These qualities, and others that I’ll describe in this book, are the source of children’s future achievements and happiness. As we shall see, they all take root in early emotional experience, and parents can do a lot to offer such experience. Whatever children’s degree of physical, intellectual, or artistic talent, these qualities expand the possibilities for their future.

The ten crucial traits described here comprise a child’s intellectual and mental health. When all ten are present and fully functioning in a child, that’s when we’re likely to hear parents and other adults say, “Alicia (or Andy) is such a great kid.” In fact, when we hear an adult described as “a great person,” it’s almost certainly because these ten skills are there.

Perhaps the most important point about these traits is that they are not wired in our genes—we aren’t born with them. They come from experience, which means that each and every child—even those with challenges—can strive to acquire them, with the help of caring adults. In this book, I’ll unbraid the strands of great kids’ intellectual, emotional, and social selves to find out how these traits develop. We will see in detail the kinds of nurturing that encourage each trait. We will also see how emotional and intellectual development are dynamically intertwined throughout a child’s development.

What do most parents want for their children? I believe there are three essentials: Parents want their children to have happy and fulfilled lives, raise healthy families of their own, and contribute to society in a meaningful way. The characteristics of great kids identified here represent the skills needed to accomplish each of these goals. It’s a long journey from infancy through toddlerhood and the early school years, then on through adolescence to the cusp of adulthood. A “great kid” moves through identifiable intellectual and emotional landscapes and past important landmarks along the way.

With each step toward selfhood, children learn new cognitive skills. As we shall see, these are built upon their emotional experiences. As they grow, children move through the full range of emotions—joy, sadness, anger, love, triumph, and loss. The traits that we describe grow through such emotional experiences and along clear developmental stages.

Before I begin, let’s look at the developmental roadmap that I’ll be referring to in each chapter as I discuss the ten characteristics of “great kids” in detail. A child must reach certain landmarks on the road to adulthood. We all traveled this road; now our children are embarking on it. Before we look closely at the specific pathways to empathy and curiosity and emotional balance and all the other characteristics, let’s look at the stages through which they will develop.

Awakening to the World. Beginning at birth, we learn how to be calm and regulated and to take an interest in the world and all its sensations of touch, sound, smell, and taste.

Engaging and Relating. As we become part of relationships with our parents and caregivers and the others who love us, we, in turn, fall in love with the world.

Communicating. The long process of learning how to communicate with those we love starts with the simplest of purposeful gestures: smiles, head nods, frowns, angry grimaces, deliberate pointing. Most important, we learn how to respond to our caregivers’ gestures with gestures of our own.

Problem Solving and a Sense of Self. Long before we learn to use words to any degree, we learn to use gestures to solve problems. We figure out that we can take a parent by the hand and walk to the toy or cookie that we want. We make gurgling sounds to show that it’s this one, not that one, as the parent questions us about our preference. This continuous flow of gesturing with others helps us use our senses of hearing, vision, touch, and movement as a well-orchestrated team. We feel ourselves acting on the world and, through social interactions, we learn about our parents’ values and the norms of our culture. All this happens before we can speak.

Language and Ideas. Now, we learn to connect and use emotional ideas. They guide our pretend play. Words now make it possible for us to let others know how we feel and what we want them to do for us.

Logic. Once we learn to share our ideas, we take another huge leap and begin to build bridges between them. We begin to think logically. We can explain why we’re happy or sad. We also learn to refrain from something not just because we’ll be punished for it but because it’s “wrong.” Our feelings about ourselves begin to be based on our own evaluation of whether we’ve done the right or wrong thing.

Once we’ve crossed into the world of logical thinking and connecting our emotions and ideas together, we can master higher and higher levels of emotional and intellectual development. As we grow into adulthood, we move through other predictable stages, more sophisticated kinds of thinking, and self-reflection.

In this journey that we all make, we will see how the key traits that we’ve identified continue to expand and enhance the lives of great kids. By nurturing them, we can help our children build close relationships, productive careers, strong families, and a deepening sense of the meaning they choose to give to their lives.


Relating to Others

I visited a new mother, a friend of the family, in the hospital recently. When I entered her room, she was holding her infant in the crook of one arm and using her free hand to pack a small suitcase for the trip home. The baby was awake and alert, looking out from the safety of her mother’s arm, smelling her, and feeling her warmth. As my friend packed, she crooned a bit to her new daughter. This connection, only hours old, was off to a good start. Mom was relaxed and enjoying her contact with her new daughter; the baby was warm, secure, nestled into loving arms. A relationship was beginning.

The lessons of engagement begin with the intimacy of a baby’s bonds with her parents. As this little girl grows older, she will form strong bonds with all her immediate family by learning to trust, to communicate, and to work and play together. In her relations with others, she will learn about frustration and anger, about disappointment and sadness. As she grows, she will move away from the immediacy of her family circle into a world of peers and, later, into larger groups. Learning how to engage and take pleasure in other people—from elementary school friends to high school buddies to teachers, boyfriends, a husband, and eventually her own children—begins from the moment she first looks into her mother’s eyes and takes pleasure in her mother’s closeness.

The ability to engage with another person is the bedrock skill for the development of a great kid. From it grows her ability to form trusting relationships. Through relationships, a child learns to construct not only a sense of self but also of the reality of the world in which she lives.

Throughout her life, a child must be able to “read” and relate to a range of people. As she grows up, this ability to connect will allow her to make friends and form a variety of relationships with significant loved ones, with casual acquaintances, and with colleagues and clients. In times of stress, she will turn to those close to her to help her feel better and to find solutions to problems. Through connection with others, children and adults share the pleasures, joys, angers, and sorrows of their lives.


As we can see in the scene I witnessed at the hospital, connection begins immediately. The capacity to elicit connection develops quickly, as well. By the time she is four months old, my friend’s baby will be wooing her mother with winning smiles—and getting smiles in return. The pleasure of this reciprocity builds her trust in relationships and her sense of her own ability to connect with other people. By the time she’s eight months old, she will be flirting with caregivers, and even with strangers; she will actively be playing peek-a-boo, laughing, and reaching out.

Relating Through Joy

During the first few months of life, babies learn to translate the world of their sensations into emotions. They begin to understand that a world exists outside themselves, represented at first by Daddy’s face, Mommy’s smell, the comfort of a soft blanket, the shock of a banging door or a loud voice. Recognizing these patterns and learning the difference between “me” and “outside me” is an essential step toward connecting with a reality outside themselves.

At the very beginning, that reality is grounded in a continuous set of sensations: temperature, touch, taste, hearing, smell, and the sight of familiar faces. The baby I saw in the hospital was already using all her senses, and those senses were focused on the presence of her mother—as they were on her father, too, when he held her in his arms. As parents nuzzle and croon, feed and bathe, cuddle and soothe their baby, their engagement with their infant brings her intense pleasure. This interaction gives the baby her first emotional experience. Through those feelings, she will quickly learn essential lessons about the outer world and about how human beings function in it.

D. W. Winnicott, the great British psychoanalyst, offers a delightfully vivid account of this early engagement:

There is the reactive smile that means little or nothing but there is also the smile that eventually turns up that means that the infant feels loving, and feels loving at that moment towards the mother. Later, the infant splashes her in the bath or pulls her hair or bites the lobes of her ear or gives her a hug, and all that sort of thing. . . . On account of this, the infant is able to make a new development and integration.

It’s easy to take the human ability to connect for granted. After all, we all have parents, many of us have siblings, and we all operate in a world filled with other human beings. But this ability to connect varies a great deal. Some children need to sneak away to play alone in their own rooms when they’re upset. Others escape into video games, computers, or the television—essentially isolated activities. Others seek to establish connection by fighting, behaving provocatively, or irritating others to force attention.

Parents take great joy in the period of their baby’s life when she begins to respond with coos of pleasure and bursts of laughter to interactive games. Mommy might put a rattle on top of her head to make the infant laugh, and then repeat the game. This funny exchange reinforces the baby’s understanding that Mommy is a person separate from her. It also teaches the baby that by responding to silly games with laughter and smiles, she can keep the connection going.

Relating in Action: Solving Problems

As a toddler, a little girl might lead a parent by the hand to her playroom; then, through many gestures exchanged with a parent working as her partner, the toddler is able to communicate that she wants a specific toy. “No, I want the red truck, not the blue bunny,” she might as well be saying, although she does not use words yet. These “conversations” with sounds and gestures that go on between babies and parents or other close caregivers serve to cement the bonds between them.

At a Mother’s Day picnic, two toddlers who see each other fairly often were playing with a red wagon. Meg sat in the wagon, and Will tried to pull her along. The yard was scattered with toys— a large plastic dump truck, a half-deflated empty wading pool, and a pile of hula-hoops belonging to Meg’s four-and-a-half-year- old sister. As the adults sat in a circle enjoying the spring day and each other’s company, I watched as the two children took on their important project: moving the red wagon.

Will gave his job of pulling the wagon all his strength. As he grunted and groaned, the wagon inched forward right into the pile of hula-hoops, where it got stuck again. From her perch in the wagon Meg gestured emphatically at the hoops: “Get those darned things out of the way,” she seemed to be saying. Will got the message immediately. He carefully picked up each hoop and moved it aside. Meg climbed out and helped him. When the way was clear, and after a little gentle tussling over whose turn it was to sit in the wagon and whose turn it was to pull (Meg won), they tried again. This time, the wagon rolled slowly forward as the little boy pulled. He laughed triumphantly and ran over to his mother for the reward of a quick hug. Once their problem was solved, the toddlers traded places and Meg pulled for a while. But they quickly lost interest in the wagon and turned instead to the fascinating matter of watching their older brother and sister use the garden hose to fill the wading pool.


On Sale
Sep 10, 2007
Page Count
240 pages

Stanley I. Greenspan

About the Author

Stanley I. Greenspan, MD, whose books guide the care of children with developmental and emotional problems worldwide, is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School and President of the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders.

Learn more about this author