For too long, we have focused on weaknesses at school. We believe that children will get ahead when we spent most time on the areas where they are most challenged. The problem with this notion is that it is a one-sided or half-baked approach to education. In the long run, children don’t make their biggest contribution in their areas of weakness. Children overcome weakness, but they rarely excel in them or end up building their lives work around activities that make them feel depleted.
By looking at a child’s strengths we are not failing to consider his challenges, we are merely balancing the equation that has been out of proportion for too long. Strengths are the things that make children feel energized, but that doesn’t mean they are naturally talented in their area of strength. For example, your child may love playing hockey, but never make first string. On the other hand, just because your child has a talent for something, it doesn’t mean he has a strength in it. We all know a child who is good at piano but refuses to practice and finds excuses to avoid lessons. This is an example for a talent that is not a strength.
How Parents Can Help
Parents and teachers are good at identifying and pointing out challenges for children, but they cannot tell them what their strengths are. Discovering strengths involves self reflection about a variety of activities and relationships one encounters. Children are the ones who really know how they feel and they must discover their strengths on their own.
How can parents help them begin to do this? There are many ways; one of their first things parents can do to help children discover their strengths is to ask them questions about how they feel when engaged in various activities. Start by choosing three different tasks that can be done at home and ask your child which ones he prefers. Once he chooses, begin to ask him some funneling questions about the activity. A funneling question is one where you keep asking why and continue breaking the question down to find the part of the activity your child likes best. For example, Kelly just finished writing a creative story and had the following conversation with her father:
“Dad want to read my story? I think you’ll like it.”
“Do you enjoy writing Kelly?”
“What is it about writing that you like?”
“I like to make up characters.”
This brief example demonstrates that the thing Kelly likes to do is to: “make up characters”, which she can ostensibly do in a variety of places other than simply writing stories about them. She can make up characters in artwork, filmmaking, acting. She most likely enjoys making up a particular kind of character; understanding this will further shift her focus and help her define her interests more clearly. This is important in discovering strengths because when left to the broadest reflection (“I like writing”), both Kelly, her parents, and maybe her teachers may miss an opportunity to discover her potential for sustained interest. For people to become experts at anything, they have to be able to sustain enough interest to practice it.
Kelly may dislike many forms of writing if she didn’t funnel the question to discover that developing characters was what energized her, she may one day land a in a college major or even a job she hates where she is doing a lot of serious writing that is unappealing to her. People make this kind of mistake all the time. Consider the unhappy real estate agent who loves houses, but not selling. To discover strengths children must be able to funnel and narrow until they are able to precisely name the thing that most energizes them.
Developing Strength Takes Work
It has already been noted that schools put too much focus on their students weaknesses. If children spent all their time in remediation of their weaknesses, there won’t be any time left over for them to develop their strengths, and in the end all you have is ac hild who went from really bad at something to mediocre. Mediocrity is not enough to sustain a lifetime of meaningful work.
That said, discovering strengths is not about opting out of things that challenge people. It takes practice and commitment; it is not simply about following one’s bliss. In fact, once children identify their strengths, they have a responsibility to work and practice those things so they can become experts at them.
Strengths are not just what people feel energized doing, so they do not simply relate to classes studied in school. Strengths are also about what children do in their relationships. It is important for children to identify the things they do for others that make them feel strong about themselves. For example, leading others may energize one person, while listening to others energizes another. They cant be everything to everyone, so determining their strong areas in relationships will help children know to focus their energy for the best result.
Playing to our Strengths
Strengths are the new glue that can bond families and unite them to schools. Over the next few years you will hear more and more about how strengths can help children enrich and focus their live. This good news for everyone because when people are playing to their strengths in work and in their relationships we all win.
Copyright © 2009 Jenifer Fox, author of Your Child’s Strengths: A Guide for Parents and Teachers
Jenifer Fox, author of Your Child’s Strengths: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, is an educator and public speaker who has worked in public and independent schools as a teacher and administrator for twenty-five years. She is currently the international leader of the Strengths Movement in K-12 schools. She holds a B.S. in communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an M.A. in English from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, and an M.Ed. in school administration from Harvard University.