Finding kids' strengths (and why being good at singing isn't the same as being a superstar) | Lea Waters

We live in a success-obsessed society that narrowly defines strengths as things we are good at. That’s not the whole story

We’ve all heard the saying “play to your strengths”. It’s common wisdom spouted by motivational speakers. But what do we really mean when we use this adage? As parents, how can we help our kids play to their strengths? And do we really need to do this at all?

We live in a success-obsessed society that narrowly defines strengths as things we are good at. This focus on high performance leaves many young people feeling like they don’t have strengths. I’m always saddened at the vast number of students I work with who cannot answer my simple question “Tell me about your strengths?” Some actively tell me: “I don’t have any.” Many mumble something about being “OK” or “not bad” at a certain skill.

We have not taught our children how to see their own strengths and, even for those who know they have strengths, we have not given them a language to articulate their strengths. This means we have missed an important opportunity to help them achieve the full potential and boost their wellbeing.

Psychology researchers have been scientifically studying strengths for the past three decades and have categorised hundreds of different strengths into two broad categories: talent-based strengths (eg sporting prowess or being a wiz with technology) and character-based strengths (eg capacity for kindness or being uncommonly brave).

Many of us unwittingly focus on talent, because this is easier to see than character, but character strengths are vital component of a life well lived and are important for overcoming adversity. Character expands the arena of strengths. You may not have a son or daughter who makes the cut for a gifted program at school, but you’re sure to find aspects of their character that are virtuous and strong.

The more that you, their parent, value these strengths, the more that they will see that they have strengths.

One key thing that these researchers tell us that a strength is something we perform well, perform often and get energised by. For purposes of strength-based parenting then, we need to look out for the three elements of a strength in our kids: performance (being good at something); energy (feeling good doing it) and high use (choosing to do it). Being good at singing is not the same as being a superstar. It’s showing promise or skill as well as consistent outcomes in a certain area.

My daughter, Emily, is good at tennis. She won’t make Wimbledon and, truth be told, probably won’t even be selected for the talent squad. But she’s good at tennis. She can reliably serve and she has a decent volley and forehand. So, she has the performance element ticked. Yet I know tennis is not a true strength of hers because she never finishes her practice. The “energy” and “use” elements are missing.

On the other hand, I can’t get her to stop practising soccer. She’s out in the backyard practising her footwork whenever she gets a spare minute (use), she has abundant energy to practice (energy) and she’s good at it (performance).

Knowing the three elements helps you to see what a true strength is in your child. In my case, it helps me know that I’m better to help Emily invest more of her time and energy in soccer than tennis. It prevent you from falling into the trap of thinking that because your child is good at something, this is a strength, and you must push them to continue with it.

The tri-archy of strengths doesn’t only apply for talent-based strengths such as sport, it also applies to the second bucket of strengths – our character strengths.

Every child has character strengths and you’ll notice that your child has some aspects of their character that they perform well, such as the child who has emotional intelligence above and beyond her years or who has the self-regulation of an adult. In addition to the performance element, the character strength will evoke high levels of energy when used and the child will naturally use that strength over and over. You won’t need to remind your child to be kind or be brave, because if it’s a strength, it will come naturally to them.

When you see your child do something well, do it with energy, and do it a lot, you’ll know you’ve unearthed a strength and this is when you can feel confident to help them “play to their strengths”.

Professor Lea Waters is the author of The Strength Switch – How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Helps Your Child and Teen to Flourish (Penguin Random House, $34.99)


Lea Waters

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Being ‘one and done’ is certainly more common, so is it good or bad being an only child? | Maddie Thomas
While only children are still outliers, the number of single-child families has almost doubled in 40 years

Maddie Thomas

27, Dec, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Do we have to choose between being a good parent and good at our job? | Matthew Beard
I’m half writing this, half thinking about whether it is the best use of a few precious, toddler-free moments

Matt Beard

30, Sep, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
Richard Hedger on same-sex parenting: 'This is just the beginning'
In the second of our ‘Men at work’ series on paternity leave, we hear from a father who lives in Sydney with his partner and daughter, three

06, Aug, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
In lockdown, my daughter is captive to the Wiggles' dark magic – and so am I | Martin McKenzie-Murray
The Wiggles have made a Faustian pact and the cost of their success is the fear and loathing of millions of parents

Martin McKenzie-Murray

17, Sep, 2020 @1:06 AM

Article image
Clarke Gayford is staying at home with baby Neve. So what's the big deal? | Svetlana Stankovic and Gabrielle Jackson
In a new series we meet seven dads – on paternity leave or caring full-time for children – who wonder why others aren’t

Svetlana Stankovic and Gabrielle Jackson

05, Aug, 2018 @6:00 PM

Article image
My brain can’t handle all of the school emails! Why I’ve enlisted my kids to help preserve my sanity | Emma Wilkins
From now on I’m delegating the task of remembering cupcake day to my children – whose brains are at a stage where they can absorb entire languages with ease

Emma Wilkins

28, Mar, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
I hope that by staying home I have shown my kids that there is another way | Paul Daley
The benefits of being my children’s primary carer have been large, but I’d be lying if I said they’d come easily

Paul Daley

10, Aug, 2018 @11:00 PM

Article image
I am so sick of being asked if I regret not having children | Elmo Keep
For some women not having kids is a freely given, affirming choice. For others, it will be the most painful point in their entire lives

Elmo Keep

09, Feb, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Holidays with fresh towels and organised fun? I have given up on being an adventurous parent | Ashe Davenport
Before having children, I thought travelling with toddlers to Mexico would be a breeze. After considering a cruise, I’m just happy to stay home

Ashe Davenport

15, Jun, 2023 @3:00 PM

Article image
Is same-sex parenting good for the gay community? | Julie Bindel

Julie Bindel: Straight expectations: The 'gay family' is increasingly normalised: will it entrench the idea of 'good' and 'bad' gay people or make for a better world?

Julie Bindel

30, Sep, 2013 @1:59 PM