Every Monday morning I get an email with my kids’ current grades. Typically, I scan over them for any assignments or subjects with lower grades. I scroll past the A’s, because those don’t grab my attention.
Like most people, I’ve been conditioned to look for weaknesses in myself and in my kids, and it’s not just in the area of academics. I mean well by it. After all, by identifying weaknesses, I know where I can “help” my kids by signing them up for programs or hiring tutors or special coaches to get those weaknesses up to par. In general, it seems that rather than focusing on the good things about our unique personalities and strengths, we tend to pinpoint the areas where we’re not strong. And we do the same when we look at our kids. I know some basic academic skills are so important that special help is necessary, but perhaps we’re overdoing it in some areas – like when we encourage our child who’s not interested or particularly gifted in a subject to suffer through an AP course.
After learning about one of the most important tenets of positive psychology, which is the importance of focusing on strengths, it’s clear to me that we have it backwards. Our time, effort, and money would be better spent identifying and enhancing our children’s strengths and learning how those strengths can be applied in different areas of their lives.
The VIA Institute on Character and others in the field of positive psychology have determined that looking at and understanding strengths can be one key to a flourishing life. It makes sense. If we are constantly down on ourselves for what we can’t do well, we’re probably not thriving. But if we get in touch with our strengths and are reminded of them, it can be very empowering. Think of how great it would be for children who struggle with academic subjects to be told they play a vital role in the classroom as caretakers of other kids or leaders on the playground?
Recently, I’ve been researching different tools for identifying personality traits and strengths and working on ways to incorporate strengths assessment and discussion at camp. One tool I’ve found is the VIA Signature Strengths survey, which helps users create a strengths profile through a series of questions designed to help people “become their highest and best selves.” They have youth (ages 11-17) and adult versions of the survey. No one ever talked with me about my specific personality strengths and interests when I was in high school and college, and I wish they had. So here I am at 48 having these “a ha” moments when I read through VIA’s descriptions of different aspects of my particular strengths from the 24 character strengths. I also like the tools that The Gallup Organization offers: the Clifton StrengthsFinder and the Clifton Youth Strengths Explorer (for ages 10-14). Because you know your child well, most likely you can read through the list of strengths and identify your child’s quite easily without even giving them the survey. These surveys are best conducted by trained coaches who know how to debrief kids on what each strength means, but I highly recommend taking it yourself and seeing what you learn!
Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with young women from a sorority at Santa Clara University. We talked about their strengths and interests, and how to find where the two overlap and can be applied to a career and life in general. I loved seeing them light up as they talked about their strengths. By the time we finished our one-hour workshop, each of them had a list of five strengths, as well as an action plan to pursue based on one of their determined strengths and interests. Parents might be mad at me for what I told them: “Don’t pick a career because you think it sounds prestigious, because you’ll make a lot of money, or because your parents want you to do it. Pick a career that will make you excited to wake up and go to work every day!” My job as a camp director, I explained, is one that most people don’t understand or hold in high esteem, yet it has provided the most amazing relationships and lifestyle, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other career.
Like what I desire for the young women at Santa Clara, I also want my own kids and the children who come to camp to see what’s great about them. Why is this so important? Because when we know our strengths, we also know what types of things are going to get us in the state of “flow” or our “zone.” When we tap into areas of strength, we’re more likely to excel in activities and feel better about ourselves. One rule of thumb for figuring out if an activity or job is a good fit for your strengths is to assess how you feel during and after the activity. If time goes quickly and you feel energized after, most likely you’re using one of your strengths. With so many kids suffering from anxiety and depression, I wonder how much of that is because they spend too much time working through their weaknesses and not enough time learning about and living in their strengths?
We have the tendency to compare ourselves to others and to want strengths we don’t have. We also want strengths for our kids that they don’t have. Maybe we want them to have our same strengths or interests, or the strengths of some kid down the street. In either case, our kids will know that we don’t approve of who they actually are if we don’t embrace their unique positive traits and build them up.
For children who aren’t inclined academically or who suffer from test-taking anxiety, school settings in general will always be a problem: PE may be their only high-point of each day. We wind up spending thirteen years trying to cram the proverbial square peg into a round hole. What if, early on, we all started talking with kids about personality and skill strengths and what each person adds to a classroom, team, or situation? The results could be remarkable.
We have visions of great things for ourselves and for our kids. But sometimes we need to rethink those great things. If our child needs science tutors throughout school to get a passing grade, then encouraging a career in medicine may not be respecting his or her particular strength and skill set. How much better it will be for our kids when we stop comparing and wanting something different for them and instead recognize their strengths and help them discover how to best use them to succeed!
In my own family, it’s time to shift the paradigm, and that begins with the way I look at my kids’ weekly progress report. I will train my eye to focus first on the areas of excellence, rather than being so quick to seek out the flaws. I’m also going to get the rest of my family to take the VIA Signature Strengths survey so we can start discussing the variety of strengths we each bring to our family and to the world. Like any exercise, character-building starts with small but measurable steps, and for me, the first step is pointing out my kids’ strengths, and not just on Mondays after I see their progress reports.
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Clifton Youth Strengths Explorer (book)
Your Child’s Strengths: A Guide for Parents and Teachers (book)
Flow (TED Talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – 18 minutes)
Flow, by Mihaly Csikszenthihalyi
Flourish, by Martin Seligman
Why Kids Flourish at Camp
Living Life in our Sweet Spot