Helping children find and develop their strengths is one of the greatest gifts parents can give. Strengths are the inner qualities that make us all feel most alive and energized. Our strengths give us the potential to make our most meaningful contribution to life. A child's strengths often show up at a very early age. Strengths are innate and usually last a lifetime. When strengths are combined with interests, children become passionate about learning!
1. Watch Your Child Play
During imaginative play, children are free to unleash and exercise their strengths. Watch children at play, and you will learn a great deal about what they prefer, how they socialize, and how they see themselves. Be sure to provide the time and space for unstructured, creative play. Nothing encourages cognitive enrichment and emotional growth more than this.
2. Look for Your Child's Unique Qualities
Little quirks can be clues to strengths. Something as simple as a child’s tendency to demand that her mother use a certain purse over and over may signal an awareness of design. What initially may look like showing off could be an early sign of a child’s strength for entertaining. Sometimes the most unusual things signal the areas of deepest strength.
3. Write Down Your Observations
Keep a journal of the things your child does—anything that strikes you about his behavior. Here are a few of the kinds of questions that will guide you: What causes your child to express joy and happiness? What are the things that keep her attention the longest? Are there sounds or words she reacts to more than others? What are the first thing he says in the morning and the last thing he says at night? Is she generous or funny? Give some examples of what she does. Years later, your child can read the journal for clues to her inner strengths.
4. Create Family Rituals
Creating family traditions and rituals helps children discover their strengths because it gives them a rich fund of positive memories to draw on. Traditions are meaningful, and when children have an active role in creating that meaning, it will help them to identify what makes them feel good about themselves. Of course, holidays and religious rituals have built-in significance, but just about any family event can be made more meaningful if you connect it to a symbolic ritual. Some examples: at the end of the annual Fourth of July get-together, each member of the family could place a rock with their name on it in the garden, a symbol of stability and permanence. Or you could go outside to watch the sunset together and take turns saying what you were grateful for that day.
5. Be a Good Listener
Children know their strengths better than anyone, but to get them to communicate you need to listen effectively. Ask some questions, avoiding questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Show your child you are interested in her perspective. For every answer you get, follow up with another question, asking "Why do you think that?" Genuinely listen and reflect back to your child what you believe you heard her say. If a child tells you he no longer wants to play soccer, rather than tell him why he should continue, say, "I hear you saying soccer no longer interests you--can you tell me why?"
6. Resist the Urge to Evaluate
While most parents want their children to succeed, sometimes they unintentionally burden children by evaluating everything they do. When your child shows you a picture he drew, instead of saying that it’s good, ask him what he likes best about drawing. Too much praise or too much criticism makes children worry about how well they are doing, and this stifles their ability to take risks. Children need to feel like they can experiment with many things and that failing is OK--and sometimes part of the journey toward discovering what they love to do most.
7. Help Kids Identify Interests
Strengths are the positive feelings that children have when they perform different actions. Interests are the areas where they apply their strengths. For example, a child may have an interest in animals. However, one child may like to care for animals while another may enjoy training them. The strength for one child is caring, and for the other it is teaching. The strength can be transferred to other interests. For example, the child who likes to train animals may also like to teach children. When you help children discover both their strengths and their interests, they have a good chance of developing a true passion.
8. Try Not to Compare
There is nothing more detrimental to children’s ability to discover their strengths than feeling that they are constantly being compared to a “perfect” sibling. Every child is different and unique. The differences are cause for celebration, not fuel for comparison or disparagement. If you truly want your children to believe in and develop their strengths, they must feel “good enough.”
9. Offer Choices
When your children are helping around the house, use it as an opportunity to discover their passions. Let them choose among the jobs you have for them to do. When it comes to participating in school activities, encourage them to choose among a variety of things to do. If they're into music, let them choose the instrument that appeals to them. Support their choices even if they aren’t what you would pick. Let them find their own paths.
10. Allow Time to Reflect
Discovering strengths happens through a process of self-reflection. All of these tips will help children develop positive and creative thoughts when they reflect on what it is they really feel passionate about. Make sure kids have enough downtime to think and imagine. Helping your kids identify and develop their own strengths will ignite their potential and prepare them for successful, fulfilling lives.
Jenifer Fox, M.Ed., is the author of "Your Child's Strengths: A Guide for Parents and Teachers." Learn more at strengthsmovement.com