We live in a world that places a lot of importance on success. From our schooldays onwards, we are frequently told to play to our strengths, but what does this message really mean?
Does playing to our strengths mean that we should only do the things that we are good at and avoid activities that we are less skilled in? And are such skills innate or can we learn to become better at something simply by practising at it more? The answers to these questions are important because it appears that there are a significant number of children who feel that they don’t have any strengths at all. It seems that in this increased culture of competitiveness, kids today are finding it difficult to recognise their own strengths. This lack of belief in their own level of skill and ability is preventing many children from realising their full potential and negatively affecting their emotional wellbeing.
According to an article entitled ‘Finding kids’ strengths (and why being good at singing isn’t the same as being a superstar)’, psychologists have spent several years studying how we define ‘strengths’ and have divided all the different types of strengths into two broad categories, talent-based strengths and character-based strengths. Talent-based strengths may include being good at sports or having an excellent grasp of technology, while character-based strengths might include being compassionate or exceptionally kind.
The problem is that as parents, we tend to focus more on talent-based strengths and overlook our children’s character strengths often without even realising we are doing it. This can be particularly damaging for children who may not have yet discovered their talent-based strengths because they can start to believe that they possess no strengths at all. This is why it’s so important to focus on our children’s character strengths because in doing this, we teach our children how to recognise and value their individual skills and abilities. We should endeavour to teach our children that while kindness, bravery and compassion may not be particularly useful on the football field, such character traits are vital attributes that will prove to be invaluable when facing the challenges and difficulties of adult life.
One of the key things that the researchers found was that a strength can be defined by these three main components – something that we perform well, perform often and get energised by. For example, if we see that our child is good at ballet, we may encourage them to practice more in the belief that this is where their strengths lies. However, if the same child is reluctant to go to class and doesn’t practice as much as they could, then this shows that this is not one of their true strengths. Because although they may possess the skill, they don’t seem to enjoy the activity enough to want to do it all the time. This doesn’t mean that they should stop this activity, but when parents put too much focus on the fact that their child is good at ballet, this might backfire.
And although it’s important to teach our children to persevere at the activities that they struggle with, it’s also important to find the right balance. So we should try not to force our children to take part in an activity that they really don’t enjoy, or that feels overly difficult for them as this can cause them to feel that we aren’t listening to them or don’t understand them. And in doing this we run the risk of turning the situation into a power struggle, where the issue becomes about us trying to control which activities they like and dislike. One of the long-term consequences of this is that they’re likely to become increasingly reluctant to try new activities if they don’t feel that they have our full support.
It’s equally important that our kids don’t become overloaded by doing too many activities and hobbies at once. It’s almost impossible even for adults to concentrate when they are tired or distracted by too many things, so imagine how difficult it must be for a child! Often, the best way to help our children discover their strengths is by giving them the time and space to explore the things that interest them rather than try to make them do the things that we think they should be interested in. This approach helps kids to develop a healthy sense of curiosity and a love of trying new things that will last into their adult lives.
To find a child’s true strength, you need to look for three components – Use (they want to do the activity all the time), Energy (never gets tired of practicing) and Performance (is skilled at it). Knowing these elements enables us to recognise our children’s strengths so that we are better placed to offer support and encouragement in the areas that they truly need it, rather than concentrating only on the areas in which they show aptitude or talent.
And when praising your kids, try to keep the following points in mind to help them recognise their strengths and want to develop them:
- Focus on effort, progress and process rather than performance alone so that children don’t feel that they are ‘gifted’ and that talents and skills are innate.
- Remember to make it about the kids so that they can learn to self-evaluate themselves and not just wait for other people’s judgement of their performance. So rather than saying “I’m so proud of you!” replace this statement with “You must be proud of yourself!” or ‘You must be happy with this result/achievement?”.
- When children reach the age of five, their ability to reason increases so it’s a perfect time to start involving them in decision-making about which activities they should and shouldn’t pursue. And if they see that their parents stick at things even when they are tough or challenging then you’ll find that they are far more likely to persevere at the activities that they themselves struggle with. Remind them that learning something new or becoming skilled in an activity isn’t something that happens overnight, it takes practice and perseverance and that’s why it’s so important to stick at something even if we don’t find it easy.
For more tips and advice on how to praise and encourage your children in a way that will raise their confidence and boost their self-esteem, you can read our eBook ‘Raising Confident Kids’.