“Back to School–Encouraging Children’s Strengths” by Justin Bush, PhD

by drbush on October 20, 2015

*this article was first published in the Children’s Health Foundation’s Fall 2015  newsletter.

Back to school is a bit like New Year’s Day, an opportunity for kids to start fresh and earn good grades, to be one grade older, to have a new teacher(s), to begin a new sport season or join a new club, and perhaps to start a new school. For parents and children alike it can also be an opportunity to develop new ways of relating with each other and specifically for parents and supportive adults in children’s lives to make a point to nurture characteristics they would like to see more of in their children. Why is this important and how do we go about doing it?

One of the most moving and memorable lessons I learned in undergraduate and graduate school came from reading a book by Victor Frankl, MD, PhD, and watching him lecture on his brand of psychotherapy called logotherapy. In 1972, quoting Goethe, Frankl said, “If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him…We promote him to what he really can be… Let’s recognize this, let’s presuppose it, and then you will elicit it from him and you will make him become what he in principle is capable of becoming.” What I took this to mean is that by mining for and pointing out the best in people, they fulfill their potential. Children need help nurturing along their natural born interests, talents, and positive qualities of their personality.

In 1998, psychologist Marty Seligman, PhD, ushered in the science of positive psychology and study of human strengths. He and other social science researchers found that when people discover and cultivate their strengths, they report happier and more meaningful lives. He tells a story of having an epiphany about the importance of recognizing human strengths in ourselves and in others shortly after an encounter with his 5-year-old daughter, Nikki. While gardening and watching his daughter throwing weeds and dancing around, he yells at her stop. She walks away and later comes back and says, “Daddy, I want to talk to you.” “Yes, Nikki?” “Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? From the time I was three to the time I was five I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I have ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.” Upon reflection of this incident Seligman wrote, “Nikki hit the nail right on the head. I was a grouch. I had spent fifty years mostly enduring wet weather in my soul, and the last ten years being a nimbus cloud in a household of sunshine. Any good fortune I had was probably not due to my grouchiness, but in spite of it. In that moment, I resolved to change… I realized that raising Nikki was not about correcting whining. Nikki did that herself. Rather, I realized that raising Nikki is about taking this marvelous skill – I call it “seeing into the soul,” – amplifying it, nurturing it, helping her to lead her life around it to buffer against her weaknesses and the storms of life. Raising children, I realized, is more than fixing what is wrong with them. It is about identifying and nurturing their strongest qualities, what they own and are best at, and helping them find niches in which they can best live out these positive qualities.”

Psychologist Ann Masten, Ph.D. researches and writes about how for too many years the social sciences have focused almost exclusively, on what went wrong in a child’s life, and by doing so, they failed to acknowledge and highlight the resilience processes in human development and thriving. Children and adults are extraordinarily adaptive despite their life circumstances and hardships they have endured, by in large. Masten refers to this as the “ordinary magic” of people.

So just what is the ordinary magic of young people and how do you go about recognizing the strengths in your child this fall? A great place to start is identifying your youth’s strengths and learning about the main areas to focus on to nurture the whole child’s development. Go online and sign up to have your daughter or son complete the University of Pennsylvania’s “VIA Strength Survey for Children” (https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/testcenter). Afterwards, have a conversation with them about their identified top three strengths and point out times you have witnessed them applying their strengths at home, at school, and within the community.

Next, learn to listen for your child’s strengths. By listening closely to your child, they will give you clues on what matters most to them. Another important thing to do while you are listening to your child and helping them discover their strengths is to validate their feelings and help them get practice expressing themselves. Deep down all kids want is to be heard and acknowledged by caring adults and to be reassured that they have someone in their corner reflecting back to them their positive attributes and qualities. Your child’s strengths are already in their possession; they just need to be noticed and highlighted. Ask yourself what energizes and excites them? What are they passionate about? What do they naturally gravitate towards and spend their free time doing? What makes them unique, quirky, and special to you and others?

For instance, many kids I work with like Legos and the video game, Minecraft. A good way to help children discover their strengths is by asking them about intentionality. “What is it that you love about Minecraft?” Say the child responds, “I like it because there is no one way to play, and you figure it out as you go.” You could respond, “So you like puzzles?” or, “So your strength is solving puzzles.” Alternatively, let us say the child throws you for a loop, tells you that you have it all wrong, and says, “No, it’s more about just having fun and exploring.” You could then reply, “I see. So what would you say your strength is?” Moreover, the child answers, “I think I’m pretty patient and I stick to it until I find something cool.” This is the ordinary magic and epiphany. That is to say that the child just taught you that their strengths are patience and persistence. These attributes can pay future dividends throughout their lives, especially when it is pointed out and seen as an asset by the important adults in their life. Beyond video games, other kids are interested in sports, art, music, caring for pets, riding horses, singing, dancing, martial arts, etc. These activities serve as pathways into helping adults discover children’s natural curiosities, love of learning, kindness, social intelligence, fairness, leadership, modesty, integrity, humor, appreciation of beauty, and other character strengths and virtues. Keep in mind that strengths and virtues are not necessarily a child’s specific talents or skills, per se. Instead, strengths are children’s beliefs, attitude, and outlook on life and the related activities they engage in that make them feel capable, competent, joyful, and strong.

There are several benefits of encouraging children’s strengths this school year. When kids see their strengths as positive qualities about themselves, their self-concept begins to change when they are engaged in their favorite activities over time. Strengths “coaching” from others, combined with children’s imagination about what is possible in their lives, expands and builds upon their existing strengths because they will feel more confident during preferred activities and when trying new things and their combined experiences serve to stretch their mindset further. Additionally, even when they are not doing things they enjoy—they can start to notice how even when they feel bored, tired, and stressed out, their individual strengths stand to carry them through and even spur them forward to build resilience. In these ways, fostering children’s strengths can blossom into the growth of more character strengths and hardiness. Our job then as parents, teachers, pediatricians, coaches, mentors, and counselors is to make as many opportunities as possible to facilitate the process of asking about strengths to reveal them. Doing so this school year and over the course of their education will give children a better chance to fulfill their potentials and promote them to what they are capable of becoming.

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