How Strengths-Based Parenting Can Help Your Kid Thrive
Stop trying to 'fix' your kids and nurture their natural talents instead.
Your kid loves to be the center of attention. She's the type to run onto the playground, yell "Watch me!", and make monkey noises while hanging upside down on the monkey bars.
If that sounds familiar, one of your child's strengths may be her presence; and to nurture that strength, you may want to consider different ways she can lead by example, whether by showing other kids how to stop bullying or how to perform a dance routine.
This is just one example of strengths-based parenting, which encourages parents to quit dwelling on their children's weaknesses and instead, help them develop their natural talents. "Innate talents—those behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that come naturally to you—don't change much over time," says Mary Reckmeyer, Ph.D., executive director of Gallup's Donald O. Clifton Child Development Center. "Parents should embrace their own and their child's natural talents, inclinations, and interests instead of putting most of their energy into 'fixing' what's wrong or pushing their child to be someone else's idea of perfect."
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That's the idea behind Dr. Reckmeyer's new book, Strengths Based Parenting: Developing Your Children's Innate Talents (Gallup Press 2016), in which she combines decades of strengths psychology research—including assessments of nearly 1 million young people—with her experience as a teacher to present stories, examples, and practical advice that parents can use to uncover and foster their children's top talents.
We chatted with Dr. Reckmeyer to learn more.
How can parents identify their child's strengths?
Parents can use the Clifton Youth StrengthsExplorer assessment (recommended for ages 10-14) or the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment (recommended for ages 15+) to identify natural talents. For younger kids, we use a method called "StrengthsSpotting" that relies on repeated observations of young children in a variety of settings and interactions.
Parents can also watch for clues to talent, especially in younger children. For example, when your child displays these clues time after time, she's probably working in an area of talent:
- Yearnings: Activities or environments your child is repeatedly drawn to
- Rapid learning: Skills or activities your child picks up quickly and easily
- Satisfaction: Activities your child is enthusiastic about and that fulfill her
- Timelessness: Activities your child becomes so engrossed in that she seems to lose track of time whenever she's doing them
When you apply skills, knowledge, and practice to natural talents, you can develop them into strengths. Recognizing your children's talents early and nurturing their abilities can lead to greater happiness and fulfillment for parents and kids.
How can parents then foster their child's strengths? And how can they keep this strengths-based mindset when school curriculums push kids into uniformity?
Encourage your children to pursue what they're naturally good at. One of the best ways we can give kids confidence is for them to become experts—to know a lot about a few things. It gives them an edge to say, "I'm not great at math, but I know a lot about dinosaurs." It doesn't matter so much what the subject is, but that they've been allowed to learn it in depth. However, math does matter, and if your child struggles with math, you don't want it to become a roadblock to his education. As a parent, find ways to use his talents and interests to motivate him. If he's naturally competitive, challenge him to do his math homework before dinner. Does he relate well to other people? Perhaps he could join a study group. Help him get to the point where he's good enough at math. Then he can still put time into those areas where he excels.
Do you have any advice on how to handle parenting peer pressure and hyper-competitive parents who push their kids to excel at everything?
I like to ask parents to reflect on their childhoods and then think about who they are today. Is being well-rounded necessary for their daily lives? In the real world, few of us have mastered music, sports, math, history, and English. Yet excellence in all subjects is what many parents and schools expect from children. Sometimes it's hard in the busyness of everyday life to step back and get perspective. That's why I think it's important for parents to accept, appreciate, and build on the unique talents of their child. If that means that after considering your child's individual interests and proclivities, you decide to let him have a summer of gathering rocks, reading, building forts, and playing instead of sports camps or tutors, then you have made a choice that fits your child. Knowing yourself and your strengths as a parent and understanding that your child is an individual will help muffle the noise of parenting peer pressure.
Your approach encourages parents to treat each child as an individual and respect their natural interest. How can parents encourage other adult figures in their children's lives to do the same?
Teachers and coaches do want to know what motivates kids and what works best for them—it makes their jobs easier and more satisfying. Ask yourself how, as a parent, you can best use your strengths to create a partnership with teachers and other adults. Let them know what has worked best at home and in other situations. Provide insight into your child's talents. Be positive and supportive. Get involved in school and other activities. Don't forget to take note of the talents that other teachers and adults use that make a difference. Noticing everyone's natural gifts will go a long way toward initiating a strengths-based environment.
Kaitlin Ahern is Editor of Parents.com. Her natural talents include cat wrangling, puddle jumping, and chocolate chip cookie making. Follow her on Instagram: @kmahern.