7. How to search for strength and potential

One of the joys of parenting is seeing or hearing your child do or say the unexpected, especially when that unexpected is something helpful, kind, or thought through.

Without any prodding or asking, I saw my seven-year-old grandchild empty the dishwasher and put the dishes away when I was at her house babysitting the other day. My jaw dropped, and I looked on in amazement and, of course, said a few words of appreciation. I waited until she was done so as not to interrupt. I was surprised. Geez, I still remember the day my oldest son, then around twenty, took out the garbage without being asked. (I am the” might as well do it myself” type of parent/grandparent – certainly, that is not always good, but that’s my personality. Just do it.)

What is a strength? A strength is a characteristic or skill that helps an individual solve a problem or move forward. Strengths can come in many forms and sizes.

Let me ask you a simple question. What did you say to yourself this morning when you looked in the mirror for the first time, like when you brushed your teeth? Was it, “Wow, great to see you today. You’re going to have a great day” or was it, “Boy, you look tired and stressed out.”? And then you put yourself on the scale, and that may not be a very uplifting experience. I am guessing that the majority probably say something more negative than positive to themselves. We seem to be very good at criticizing ourselves and others. It comes naturally!

It follows us our whole lives. Most parents seem to have more negative commentary in dialogues with their children than positive commentary. Do you do that with your partner as well? Don’t! You went to school and had teachers that emphasized your weaknesses and mistakes. 

It can be difficult to break that pattern. Surely, we need to be aware of our weaknesses, and we need a high dose of self-awareness, but just perhaps there is a lot more to gain by focusing on our strengths instead of our weaknesses.

Children need to feel safe, secure, comfortable, accepted and loved. Imagine being brought up in a home without that. Unfortunately, that happens too often, and some people never recover. “But you have to point out faults, have to correct behavior, have to make them change….” Well, sure, once in a while, but if this is the normal pattern, kids will lose their self-confidence and sense of security. 

I must say that the paradigm of parenting and teaching is built upon the paradigm of correcting weaknesses. I am suggesting that you explore the paradigm of encouragement and strength finding. This does not mean never pushing back, pointing out other ways to act, or saying that some behavior is unacceptable. This is necessary because you need functioning routines, norms, rules, and consequences in order for your family to work.

I am just saying building what works and actively hunting for strengths is a better long-term strategy.

To my granddaughter, I could add a phrase or two after thanking her for helping empty the dishwasher. “You can be very helpful. I appreciate that. You seem to get a kick out of putting things in order.” I am simply confirming and affirming her efforts, but “helpful” and “order” are also words of strength.

Your son or daughter opens the door for you. “Oh, thanks for opening the door. That was very polite and helpful.” You are pointing out that you appreciate the help and appreciate politeness and implying that they have those traits.

Your son breaks up a fight between his two younger siblings, and you say, “Phew. Thanks for the help.” You are pointing out that you appreciate the help and rely on them to help out now and again, a much-appreciated trait.

Your daughter works hard on a homework task. You see how hard she tries, and you simply compliment her and say that you see how hard she is trying. “I see that you are giving it your best.” Perseverance and following through are enormously important strengths.

“Nice how you got Aunt Liza to laugh. Making other people comfortable or happy is a nice skill to have.”

You are observing what works.

You are positively reinforcing what works.

You are making what you value as a parent known without pointing fingers.

You are showing your appreciation.

You are finding words for their strengths.

You are giving encouragement.

That’s quite a lot you have accomplished with a three-second act of strength finding and encouragement. 

One word of warning. Don’t turn this against them. “Remember when you were so nice to Aunt Liza? So why are you so mean to your little sister now?” It’s like the teacher that says, “You are so focused when you play ball, but why can’t you focus on your math?” 

The last thing you want to do is use their strength against them. Just point out and promote strengths, and slowly but surely, this encouragement will positively impact their behavior. Just remember, this is not that famous Course of Miracles. This is a course on the art of a rewarding, reflective conversation. You find the small bits of a large puzzle and put them slowly but surely in place. 

Maybe! Be comfortable with maybe. You are in the parenting business, and there are no guarantees, just small things you can do to provide a warm, accepting home that, through behavior and conversations, leads to responsibility and constructive give and take.

Homework: Be a strengthfinder. That is your homework. Find two or three examples in each family member when exhibiting strengths. Actively look for strengths. Share what you saw and heard, and add a word of appreciation. You may be pleasantly surprised. Your son or daughter (or partner) may be surprised, too at your new sense of appreciation.

Remember that non-traditional strengths are just as important as traditional strengths.