A strength can be a very specific talent, such as the ability to compute numbers, draw in perspective, play a musical instrument, or run fast. But it can also be a positive personality trait that a child has in abundance.
Trait strengths are the positive aspects of our personality that benefit us and others (e.g., kindness, gratitude, fairness). Researchers have found a key group of positive traits (referred to as character strengths) that exist across a large range of nations as well as in remote tribes and indigenous cultures.
The six broad groupings for these positive traits are:
- Sense of justice
- Ability for temperance/self-control
- Capacity to find meaning in something beyond ourselves
Because these strengths are universal, we all have them, but each of us has them in different degrees as part of our unique strength profile.
Personality strengths—our character—play a big role in helping us build our performance strengths—our talents. Think about anyone who has built a talent and imagine if it could have been done without character. Imagine Einstein without curiosity, The Beatles without creativity, Mother Teresa without compassion, and Neil Armstrong without bravery.
Yet for decades, scientists were blind to character strength. We focused on performance strengths, often on physical strength and skills. In fact, when I first ask young children what they think a strength is, they almost always point to their biceps or talk about being able to lift something heavy.
It’s true that physical abilities helped us survive. Yet science has begun to show that certain character strengths helped our species solve problems and cooperate to survive, and researchers have developed ways to measure them. Research by Dacher Keltner, PhD, has shown that our positive personality traits such as love, gratitude, and cooperation encouraged close bonds among families and friends, allowing them to band together to share food, find mates, and raise children. This is why positive traits like empathy, for example, are hardwired into our brains. Survival of the fittest was supported by survival of the kindest.
We all perceive character intuitively every day. After meeting someone, we’ve got a sense of “I like that person” or “I don’t like that person.” What’s driving that is a subconscious assessment of the person’s character.
We also perceive degrees of character. We know some people are kinder than others, some are more grateful than others, some excel at assessing the fairness of a situation, and some are super courageous.
Once you get familiar with the language of strengths and the framework for seeing them, you’ll see character strengths easily in your child. In fact, you may find your child calls on her character strengths more often than on performance skills to meet life’s challenges.
The Three Key Elements of a Strength
You’ve probably seen a child joylessly perform at a piano recital. She may hit all the right keys, but there’s no energy or enthusiasm. It’s as if she doesn’t want to be there. On the flip side, we’ve seen the child onstage who’s clearly motivated and energized and who fearlessly flails through every mistake—of which there are many.
It turns out that three elements come together to form a strength. For purposes of strength-based parenting, we need to keep our eye on all three:
1. Performance (being good at something)
Watch for when your child shows above-age levels of achievement, rapid learning, and a repeated pattern of success.
2. Energy (feeling good doing it)
Strengths are self-reinforcing: The more we use them, the more we get from them. They fill us with vigor. You’ll notice your child has abundant energy when using a strength.
3. High use (choosing to do it)
Finally, look for: what your child chooses to do in his spare time, how often he engages in a particular activity, and how he speaks about that activity.
Neither child at our hypothetical piano recital would be classified by psychologists as having a strength for piano because neither is showing all three elements of a strength: The first child performs well but without energy and probably wouldn’t do it if given a choice; the second, however energized and interested, isn’t performing well.
Strengths are things we do well, often, and with energy.
For true strengths, these three elements form a beautiful feedback loop: Great performance provides the child with a shot of high energy, so the child naturally chooses to do more. In turn, high use—also known as effort or practice—improves performance levels. So, for example, if you notice that your child is energized when she plays the piano, and you provide enjoyable opportunities for her to play, if she’s mining a true strength she will likely practice more, which improves her performance, which then energizes her… and so the loop continues:
Keeping this triad in mind will help you avoid pushing your child into an area that seems like a strength just because your child is good at it. It will also help you differentiate between whether your child is bingeing on an activity in an escapist way or expressing a true strength. For example, parents have asked me, “My kid is great at computer games and wants to play all the time. Is that a sign of a strength?” I reply, “Observe his energy levels at the end. Is he drained and cranky? Or energized and full of life? Are you seeing the full triad?” Computer games can tap into a child’s strategic and problem-solving skills or stimulate creativity (in some games, you invent whole new worlds). Or they might just be about filling time. So look for all three signs. When you see your child do something well, with energy, and a lot—you’ll know you’ve unearthed a strength.
Additional Clues to Your Child’s Strengths
You also may see the following signs:
There’s a Drive or Yearning
You can sometimes tell a strength by the yearning to use it. There’s a sense of inevitability about it. Chances are, it will “leak” out somehow. A person thwarted in a strength won’t feel like herself. When the yearning to express a core strength is blocked or frustrated, it creates a special kind of pain.
Your Child Naturally Displays It
You can learn a lot about your child’s strengths just by observing what she naturally does and says. Emily is constantly doodling, seemingly without even realizing it. She’ll be watching TV, but with a pencil in her hand. If cartoons are on, she draws the characters while watching. It’s just part of who she is.
Part of the adventure of Strength-Based Parenting (SBP) is looking for clues like these, offering reasonable opportunities for the child to explore, and then assessing whether a particular trait or talent develops from “shows potential” to demonstrated achievement. A friend of mine could bend his middle finger back to touch his wrist when he was a kid. It’s an ability not many people have, but it wouldn’t be classified as a strength because it didn’t contribute to his development or lead to a productive outcome per se. However, his parents saw his finger-bending ability as a possible sign of deeper physical talents of flexibility and agility. They also saw that he was energized and motivated to use this physical flexibility, so they suggested he join the gymnastics team. Gymnastics helped my friend to develop his strength of flexibility and put it toward a productive use.
You don’t have to respond to every strength clue—that would be exhausting for both you and your child, and not every bendy finger means a gymnast in the making. But it’s fun to tune in to your child and take a step or two toward helping him experiment with interests and abilities and see where they lead. We do this instinctively when we buy Lego for a child who loves building with blocks, and puzzles for the child who’s a whiz at sorting and assembling the pieces, when we present a library card to a child who burns through books, or encourage our teenager to volunteer at an animal shelter to build on his compassion and love of animals.
Your Child Loses Track of Time When Engaged in It
It’s usually a sign of a strength if your child can sustain focus on it for long periods of time, with a tendency to become so deeply captivated that he loses track of time. This state has been described as “flow.” It’s a good way to differentiate between a behavior a child is good at but that isn’t really a strength and one that truly sustains him in that delicious feedback loop mentioned above. We generally don’t lose track of time if we aren’t energized by the activity.
We tend not to respect the flow experience as an important, valid signal of strengths. That’s because we have a false idea that exhausting work leads to high performance. Actually, strengths do. When work is matched well to strengths, we’re not working as hard because our strengths come naturally to us. Of course, we all face challenging, tiring tasks at times, but their effects can be tempered by other activities that put us in flow.
It Can Be Put to Positive Use
Researchers talk about how strengths need to be used in ways that are socially or morally valuable. If my physically flexible friend had used his hypermobility to evade the laser beam security system and steal the Crown Jewels, his gymnastic prowess would be productive—he’s successfully stolen the jewels—but not positive.
A parent’s role is to guide children in positive uses for their strengths. It can be inspiring to see how children start using their strengths as forces for good.
Still having trouble pinpointing your child's specific strengths? Take a look at the list of character strengths below, or take the VIA Character Strengths Survey (for free!). I would recommend that your child take this only if they are older than age 11.
This post includes excerpts from Lea Waters’s book “The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish" which has numerous footnotes supporting the research cited here.
To learn more about Strength-Based Parenting visit: www.StrengthSwitch.com.
Photo credits (in order of appearance): Teddy Kelley on Unsplash, Shutterstock, Ben Hershey, Annie Spratt, Samantha Sophia, Hughes De Buyer Mimeure, Jelleke Vanooteghem, and Roxanne Desgagnes on Unsplash
Copyright © 2017 Lea Waters. All rights reserved.