Not all kids can be parented the same way. Mary Reckmeyer, Ph.D. is the author of Strengths Based Parenting (Gallup Press, February 2016) and is the executive director of Gallup's Donald O. Clifton Child Development Center. Here she explains how you can bring out your children's inner strengths, rather than trying to fit them into an existing mold.
Everyone knows a kid like my nephew Tom.
Tom was the 2-year-old who threw a temper tantrum, just because. Maybe it was because his mother looked at him the wrong way, or he wasn't allowed to put the sugary cereal in the grocery cart, or he didn't want to take a bath.
He became the 8-year-old who was afraid of dogs — even really small ones. Later, he was the teenager who wouldn't touch the gourmet meals his mom prepared and who thought fast-food burgers were the only food worth eating. He was the high school student who often found better things to do than attend all of his classes.
Tom's issues are common — but how much time and energy would you put into "solving his problems"?
When a child like Tom is someone else's, parents know exactly what needs to happen. Ground him, call the counselor and make him attend aversion therapy. But when he's your child, you wonder what the right answer is, and you can become consumed with these issues and define him by his problems.
Parents want to be the best they can be at raising happy and productive children, but unfortunately, there is no "easy button" that applies to every family and every situation. With an array of parenting advice lining the bookshelves in bookstores or delivered to your screen via your favorite online search engine, only one thing is clear: There's no one way to raise a child. There is no "right" way to raise a child either. Blanket parenting advice just doesn't work for everyone. Parents have their unique strengths, and each child has his individual personality. The variations in innate abilities, strengths and environmental factors are endless.
How often do we, as parents — in the midst of everyday life, of "growing up" our children — focus on their uniqueness? How often do we think about nurturing their innate gifts, their talents and their strengths? How often do we stop to consider that focusing on our own strengths, as well as those of our children, will make the most significant difference in the future?
For Tom, he was more than the sum of his "problems." As an 11-year-old, he was enterprising enough to start a concession-stand business, and he enlisted other kids to help. He was an honor roll student in high school. Today, not only has Tom graduated from college and is married with kids of his own, but he has also started his own successful health-related business. He even has a dog. The onetime lover of fast-food burgers is now an avid follower of great restaurants and an advocate of healthy eating. He also enjoys his mom's cooking whenever he can.
How does this happen? How does a "problem" child turn into a capable and successful adult? Well, maturity helps, but parents, teachers and other significant adults help even more. You see, Tom's family didn't define him by his fears or shortcomings. Instead, they appreciated his ability to generate ideas and express his opinions. They recognized his natural talents of confidence and curiosity. And they encouraged him to follow through with his idea of a starting a concession stand and his later enterprise as well. It is discovering and nurturing the uniqueness — the special talents each of us has — that makes the biggest difference in children's development.
But what happens when you get caught up in those daily moments of frustration? Try to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Instead of focusing on fixing problems, encourage your child's innate talents and be a champion for what she does well. For example, say you have observed that your child loves to compete and wants to win. If she puts off learning her spelling words until the last minute, turn spelling into a fun activity by challenging her to see if she can learn more words each day. Keep score of her progress, and celebrate her wins. Positively reinforcing her natural tendencies will motivate her and give her the confidence to tackle the next challenge.
Like all people, our children will do their best when they get to use their talents every day. What's more, when parents apply their own individual talents and strengths, parenting becomes easier and more fulfilling — and their children will be more fulfilled too. For example, if you're great at juggling many things at once and you enjoy figuring out the best way to get things done, you should make the most of your natural flexibility and efficiency to reduce stress for your children and family.
There are no easy answers in parenting. That explains the mountain of advice you encounter — whether you seek it out or not. And unlocking your own talents — as well as your children's — takes precious time, attention, energy and collaboration, but the effort is worth it. As a parent, when you know and understand your talents and how to best apply them with your children, you can better understand your children's talents as well and help them build a foundation of strengths.