5 Strategies for Building on Your Child’s Strengths

A few months after we rebuilt our deck, I found my 5-year-old son Stuart kneeling next to a long line of black duct tape. It was one of those moments where you see the potential of strategies for building on your child’s strengths in action. Stuart had diligently used thumbtacks every few feet to attach Post-it notes to the tape, and although the tipped-over toolbox and paint-less streaks on the floorboards caused a slight frown, his creativity was undeniable.

I almost asked, “Why do you always have to stick your hands into everything? “Don’t you ever think before you jump into a crazy idea?” But I didn’t because I had just learned about a new way of parenting called “strength-based parenting.”

This may sound complicated, but it really only boils down to one rule, says Lea Waters, Ph.D., an Australian psychologist, and author of The Strength Switch. Research has shown that focusing on what children are good at makes them more likely to be healthy, happy, and interested in school. Years later, the benefits include a lower chance of depression, better work performance, and happiness in marriage.

So, when I found my son’s work that day, I had to force myself to change the story in my head from “He’s a bother and a jumper” to “He’s curious and full of initiative.” Stuart was wary as he looked up at me. “Well, that’s clever,” I said with a smile. Ask first next time.” He smiled, happy that I hadn’t been scared by the mess. Putting the focus on kids’ strengths doesn’t mean you should let them do whatever they want or give them a lot of credit, though. Here are some tips on how to use this “glass-half-full” attitude to your advantage.

1. Accept the fact that no one is good at everything.

Mary Reckmeyer, Ph.D., writer of Strengths-Based Parenting, says that it’s a myth that everyone needs to be well-rounded. And because of that, many parents see their kids as works in progress with flaws that need to be fixed. Kids often hear the same kind of helpful criticism repeatedly: “Too sensitive, too bossy, too dramatic.” I heard this my whole life.

Instead, you should tell your child that it’s normal to have weaknesses and that, as John Legend would say, we can be great in our flaws. You’ll create an important positive feedback loop by giving them praise based on what they do well. When they do something well, they’ll feel good about it, which will make them want to do it more. This practice makes them better, which starts the circle over again and makes them feel better about themselves. The key to being strong when problems arise is to feel both capable and useful.

2. Three questions to ask yourself.

Not every ability, skill, or interest is a strength, as it turns out. We do certain “learned behaviors” just because we have to. Vivienne, my 8-year-old daughter, always puts things back where they belong. However, she doesn’t enjoy ordering as much as her 3-year-old sister, Josephine, who lines up her Calico Critters by species and size. To find out if strength is real, ask yourself: Does my child like doing it? How good are they at it? Do they do it on their own? Dr. Waters says that something is only truly strong if it has all of these qualities.

When your young child is so interested in something that they don’t notice what’s going on around them, that’s a sign. Jenifer Fox, head of The Delta School in Wilson, Arkansas, and author of Your Child’s Strengths, says that giving school-aged children a choice of jobs and paying attention is another way to discover their strengths. For example, kids who like to fold things tend to understand how shapes fit together easily, a skill architects and pool players have.

I knew Fox was onto something when Stuart eagerly grabbed the opportunity to lug a light bag of trash to the curb and then rummaged around in the trash cans for ten minutes before returning. The Clifton Youth Strengths Explorer test gave me the word I was looking for. “Discoverer” is the right word to describe my son’s main strength. On Dr. Waters’s website, there is also a “Strengths Library” with more than 100 strengths that scientists have been able to measure. Some of these strengths are imagination, love of learning, courage, self-control, a sense of humor, open-mindedness, and kindness.

3. Think of it like lifting weights.

When you see one of your child’s strengths, tell them about it and then look for ways to help them get stronger. As the school year starts, tell them to focus most of their energy on their skills and just enough time on their weaknesses to get them out of the way.

Dr. Reckmeyer uses penmanship as an example. When a child has trouble writing, all they have to do is try to make their writing readable. Why? Researchers have found that focusing on strengths can lead to bigger gains than focusing on fixing weaknesses. If a child focuses on their strengths, their life will be more productive and more satisfying because they will be more likely to choose a job and hobbies that give them “a feeling of joy and wonder,” as Fox says.

By reading Dr. Reckmeyer’s picture book How Full Is Your Bucket? to my kids, I helped them learn to pay attention to which tasks drain them and which give them energy. For Kids. Now, instead of saying, “How was school today?” “What strengths did you use?” is something I often ask.

4. Think about the other side.

I used a parenting tool that Dr. Waters calls the “strength switch” when I told Stuart that “The Great Deck Debacle” was one of his first engineering successes instead of a disaster. If your child does something that makes you happy, it’s easy to tell which strength is at play. The secret is to pause and ask yourself the same question when your child does something that bothers you. Then you can deal with her bad behavior by praising her character instead of putting it down.

Take my daughter Vivienne, for example. She’ll say, “Could we watch a movie today, Mom?” all in one breath. I can decide. Or maybe we can vote. I’ll go now and get three. Can we, Mommy? Dr. Waters says that she shouldn’t be told how annoying it is when she keeps going on and on about people. Instead, she should see it as a waste of her strength. I can tell Vivienne that her perseverance and ability to solve problems are two of her best qualities, but I still want her to slow down a bit right now. You can also tell your child to focus on something else instead. I might tell my daughter how thoughtful she is and then encourage her to consider how much her nagging bothers me.

The strength switch also helps us see the good things about some traits. “Parents and kids get the message that being quiet or careful is wrong,” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet. “But introversion is linked to strengths like listening, independence, patience, honesty, deep thinking, and being a very loyal friend.” A friend of mine who was worried about her daughter’s vanity found out that being obsessed with one’s looks is what Dr. Waters would call the “dark side” of “appreciation of beauty,” which is a strength that can lead to a successful career in the arts or design.

Take a few deep breaths when you’re feeling frustrated and tell yourself, “The strengths are here, but they’re hidden. “Turn the ship around to find them,” Dr. Waters says. You’ll be better able to help your kids grow, and you’ll also be able to do what Cain says is important: respect and enjoy who they are now.

5. Don’t put kids in a box, though.

Even if you focus on your child’s strengths, you can still help them learn new skills. Cain calls it the rubber-band theory of personality when shy kids learn to be brave or when someone like my daughter learns to hold their tongue. There is a limit to how far we can stretch ourselves. For example, a child who is born with the personality of Bill Gates probably won’t grow up to be as outgoing as Oprah Winfrey. But with enough practice, any kid can get used to being in the center, get better at math, learn to be patient, and do other things.

The majority of us are aware that labels like “they’re shy” might limit a child’s potential, but Lele Diamond, Psy.D., a developmental psychologist in San Francisco, says that talking about skills can also be a matter of identity. Dr. Waters says that if we say things like, “This child is the kind one, this one is the brave one, and this one is the funny one,” kids won’t understand that every child can use all of their strengths, even if some come more easily to them than others. Dr. Diamond advises saying, “One of the things they’re really good at is… ” instead of “They’re very creative” or “They’re very outgoing.”

Strength-based parenting is a lot like walking a line when it comes to raising kids. We need to find our strengths, turn around to see them, and focus on how they can get better. At the same time, we need to realize that weaknesses are normal but not set in stone.

Meaningful articles you might like: 6 Simple Things You Can Do to Make Your Kid More Independent, How To Raise A Freethinker, How to Raise Critical Thinkers