Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Encouraging Children #5

#5 Build on Strengths, not Weaknesses

This piece of advice on encouragement by Alyson Schafer seems simple enough.  Sure, I can encourage my boys by highlighting their strengths.  As any parent can attest, children do amazing things and as our progeny, we marvel at their successes and learning.  I am still beaming over my twins question about how Wonder Woman can find her invisible plane. My youngest has better language skills than I did at 14, but that may be more a statement about me than him.  So highlighting strengths doesn't seem too much trouble.  I would argue it isn't, anyway.

But there are nuances to building on strengths that could use some reinforcing.  First, I like to brag about my kids and their successes, but it isn't always to them.  It it often to others at work, family gatherings, or the guy at the freeway off-ramp. I think this kind of bragging is good at some level.  It reinforces for the parent the worth of the child.  But the child needs that reinforcement more.  And so it is more important that the parent reinforce the strengths with the child. This can lead us back to #3 among Schafer's other suggestions. 

There is a hook here, too -- and that is to not build on weaknesses, a far more insidious action.  It's easy to label our children (See #4), particularly to discourage them. Parents may lovingly call their children "monster" or "terror" or, as in our house lately "Godzilla," and those labels can stick.  Though the terms can be used lovingly, they also have a negative underbelly.  They imply a kind of destruction, a lack of control or maturity that shouldn't be applied at their age.    Simply labeling one child as the "reader" and the other as the "athlete," seemingly innocuous or even positive labels can reinforce the negative, i.e one isn't a reader and the other isn't an athlete. 

Phrases such as, "Why do you always ________," also stress the negative.  Stopping children from climbing the monkey bars at the park points to a parent's fear that the child may be not coordinated or can't make decisions about safe and unsafe or when to ask for help. 

Parents often worry about the success of their children, wanting them to have the best, most successful lives they can, by whatever metric one might use.  And invariably, that results in concern about a child's weaknesses and occasionally the dark side of parental competition: "My child didn't know her ABC's until she was 3, she'll never get into Yale."  Non-language cues can focus on weakness as well, such as the exasperated sigh or the obsessive focus on potty training.  Children are exceptionally good at interpreting parents' actions, and parents, quite frankly, aren't that good at masking them. 

Oh, by the way, no one really cares that Einstein wasn't an ideal partner or parent.  People care about his strengths as a scientist.  (Okay maybe he is a bad example for a blog about parenting, but I hope you get the point.)

So focus on the strengths.  Really.  Focus on them.  Meditate on them.  See you child or the children around you for who they are and you will see tremendous strengths and potential.  You will all be happier in the end.

Now that you've thought about your children's strengths, post them in the comments below.  Let's see how great our kids really are. 


  1. I've always been very impressed with how verbal my children are. They can really express themselves and their needs. And Jackson started this a such a young age! I'm also equally impressed with Jackson ability to understand complex ideas and to formulate very thoughtful questions when he wants more information. For example, after his kindergarten teacher completed her lesson on gravity and how it holds things to the earth, Jackson immediately asked the question "Well how can we walk around then?" The teacher told me she was stunned into silence. Grace, of course, has her own unique personality at 2 yrs old. It is her interesting sense of humor that I truly marvel over right now. Her "jokes" are simple restatements of factual information, but where she has exchanged some simple object/person/action with some obsurd replacement. She then waits for me to "get" the joke and watches me intently. When I begin to smile, she belts out her hugely dramatic laugh. I simply can't get enough of it.

  2. This past year I lost both my parents. During the service for my Mom my younger brother told the story of when he received a national award and called her to tell her the good news. Her response was something like, "Do they know that you aren't doing as much as you could?" Which brought up the family inside joke about if one of us were elected President, she would simply tell us that we hadn't fixed everything yet. My point here is this; while it is okay to push our children to be everything they can be, it is so very important to let them know - frequently - that we love them just for being good people. Perhaps they won't be remembered by the society at large for just being good people, but those simple acts of kindness and love are actually just as important in the long run.

    So while I am incredibly proud of my children for many reasons, including all of their accomplishments, I am mostly proud of the them for being caring, loving, good people.