James just won't stop talking. Saying what's on his mind. Speaking on behalf of his action figures or animal toys. Asking questions -- my goodness, the questions.
He's only 4½ years old, but ever since he was 2, his mother and I have marveled at his ability to communicate. Don't take the proud parents' words for it, though. Ask his teachers, his extended family, even the waitresses at our neighborhood pizza place who get more than they bargained for when they strike up small talk with James. The kid was born to communicate.
I know James is unique, sure. But I'm also certain that his particular talent for talking to anyone, about anything, at any time, is distinctive. Don't get me wrong. I know other kids have it too. But I'm not those kids' dad. I know that James' talents for relating to and communicating with others are special because understanding those talents, and how they relate to his other natural abilities, allows me to parent him the way I do.
The Case for Strengths-Based Parenting
As strengths coaches, you understand the science of strengths. You know that when a person invests time and energy to discover and use their innate talents, they can create strengths.
I'm not a coach, but I've been coached to discover my talents and develop them into strengths. I'm lucky. I work for a company that not only espouses the benefits of strengths-based development, it actually created the science of strengths.
For more than a decade, I've learned how to understand myself, my relationships and my work ethic through the lens of my talents and my strengths. But unlike in the working world, where I was able to find a career that matched my talents and abilities and work for an organization that values and develops me based on my strengths, becoming a parent in 2011 didn't afford me the same cautious alignment of my top strengths to the role.
Since then, I've learned -- often the hard way -- how to parent with strengths. I learned that there was no one "right" way to parent, other than the way that made the most sense for my child based on what I do best and what he is naturally inclined to do best. I learned that I, like my son, am unique. And that in this individuality lies the real "secret" to successful parenting: We can shape better futures for our children by helping them discover their talents and develop them into strengths.
That sounds easy enough, right? Know the kid's talents. Know my own. Got it. In practice -- and I mean practice -- strengths-based parenting is a daunting responsibility for which there isn't formal or prescribed training or instructions. Before James was born, I took an Expectant Parents class; I'm fairly certain it didn't offer a section titled "How to Raise the Perfect Child." If that did in fact exist, I was too focused on the "How to Change a Diaper" section to notice.
No offense to my employer, but being a parent is my most important job with the highest stakes day to day. And unlike my job, for which I received training after postsecondary education in related coursework, when I became a parent, I received only the baby (so cute!), a pat on the back from the nurses (so thoughtful!) and a bill for the hospital's troubles (so expensive!). Oh, and a diploma from that riveting Expectant Parents course (so buried in my file cabinet!).
But that's fine. Because as long as I come back to the key tenet of strengths-based parenting -- that the only "right" way for me to raise James is by understanding and using my own talents to help him discover and develop his talents into strengths -- we'll be happy.
Of course, that starts with knowing myself and understanding my talents. Years of exposure to the CliftonStrengths assessment certainly give me a leg up over the other dads at the park, one would think. I'm comfortable talking about my talents, understanding what I do best and, just as importantly, what I don't do well. And I have a handle on the language of strengths, so I craft my own communication approach with James -- one that conveys and reinforces how our talents work together.
I'm also lucky that James has attended a strengths-based school (technically, it is an all-day Child Development Center) since the day his mother's maternity leave ended. He has had teachers that genuinely care about him and his future. His teachers are trained to see talents early in children and nurture those talents into strengths -- a process called "StrengthsSpotting." James' school sets him up to succeed. Consider a Gallup study of more than 600,000 students, which found that those who strongly agree that their school is committed to building the strengths of each student and that they have at least one teacher who makes them excited about the future are 30 times more likely to be engaged at school than their peers who strongly disagree with both statements.
And trust me, James is engaged in school. He wears his emotions on his ever-shortening sleeves, evidenced when he moped around the house only a mere two days into his recent holiday break. Concerned, I asked what was wrong. "I miss my school," he said to me, Mr. Chopped Liver.
But I will miss his school, too, when he graduates and leaves for kindergarten in 2017. Because for as much as I know about myself and my talents from reading StrengthsFinder 2.0 and working in a strengths-based culture every day, I've learned so much about James' talents thanks to his teachers and his school.
I hear about his Caring talent when he waits patiently to play outside in the water on a warm summer day because he wants one of his friends -- who doesn't like the water -- to be comfortable and ease into the activity. For the virtual sea creature James, I know he wants to be rushing through the splash pad. But even more, he wants his friend to have fun too, and James is willing to wait if it helps.
I hear about his Competing talent when I pick him up from school, and he's as sweaty as a 4-year-old can be. The basketball game didn't end the way it should have (according to James, of course), so rematch after rematch ensued. No one let him win, and he didn't win, but that didn't matter. He wanted to keep competing until he accomplished his goal.
Learning from his teachers how to spot talents has helped his mother and me at home, too. I see the Discoverer each and every night, when, in addition to reading a cute and age-appropriate story about a shark who does something funny, James insists on reading facts about real sharks from around the world via his not-age-appropriate animal encyclopedia.
I see that Competing talent again at the kitchen table, when James begs in on a game of UNO that the box tells me is for ages 7 and up. We play a few hands alongside family members, one of whom has the misfortune of playing the exact card James needs to be played before his turn to claim a victory. James The Winner went to bed ecstatic, but in the morning was his usual sleepy self at breakfast. When I asked him if he had fun playing with his family the night before, he answered, "I had fun winning," and then launched into a sort of play-by-play recounting of the final seconds of the hand that he won.
And, of course, I see the Relating talent when he's quick to strike up conversations with virtually anyone he meets, regardless of age: kids (and teachers) at school; kids he doesn't know at a get-together; heck, even people he bumps into (literally, of course -- he's 4) at the grocery store.
For me, the key to strengths-based parenting with James is communication. The traditional "let's talk about your day" kind. The subtle "I can read your body language" kind. It doesn't matter. What does matter, though, is finding a way to express yourself as a parent and for your kids to express themselves using a familiar language full of meaningful vocabulary.
Through strengths-based parenting, I've learned to use words and directions that correlate with the talents in our home. It's a language that, like any other, takes time and repetition to learn. And it evolves over time. But to be fluent in strengths is to be enlightened to one's self and how to relate to others.
What to Do About Weaknesses
I'm also acutely aware that others outside our home and his school won't exactly be, well, aware of what James' talents mean. Where I see his Presence talent shine through, others see disruption and constant chatter. Where I see his Competing talent helping shape his interests, others see someone obsessed with winning -- and upset when that doesn't happen. Where I see his Discoverer talent creating an insatiable appetite for knowledge, others see a kid who asks too many questions.
Remember that Expectant Parents class I aced before James was born? Well, about a year ago, I got to take him to an Expectant Big Sibling class. And boy, was James excited. In a room with a half dozen other kids -- some his age, some a bit older or younger -- James was in his element. He was there to LEARN! He was there to MEET PEOPLE! And, he was there to PARTICIPATE!
Other kids in the class weren't as quick to engage or as full of Presence or as fueled by Discoverer as James was. And that's OK, of course. Every kid is different. But the instructor, who we have no reason to think was malicious or condescending, took to shushing my oldest as he expressed excitement and interest -- politely, mind you, with his hand always raised -- in answering her questions that were posed to the larger group.
She was trying to give equal attention to all the children; I understand that. But there was also likely a bit of deficit-based development infused in her response. It's a common occurrence, but that doesn't mean it is right -- or that, as a parent, you can't address it.
After the hour-long "course," James left with a diploma (just like mine from four years before!). And instead of echoing the shushes of the instructor, Mom and I leaned in to what exactly James loved about the last hour -- putting aside what we didn't appreciate.
Not everyone James comes in contact with will understand his talents. And, like everyone, he has his weaknesses. Not everyone is exceptionally talented in every way. Strengths-based parenting is about focusing on what is right with parents, with children and with the family instead of obsessing over fixing what we don't do well.
Fixing weaknesses is a dead end. Decades of research in positive psychology and other fields, much of it pioneered by Don Clifton -- the father of strengths psychology -- and Gallup, prove that point. But Gallup also found that 52% of Americans believe that knowing what your weaknesses are and attempting to improve them will help you be more successful in your life than knowing what your strengths are and attempting to build on them.
And for kids, this attention paid to weakness happens most frequently while they are in school. Did you know that 77% of U.S. parents say the subjects in which a child gets the worst grades deserve the most time and attention? Kids need help learning to use their talents because, while all children have challenges, they also all have gifts.
Do kids need to know how to read and write? Of course. Does every single one of them need to be exceptional in every class and ace every exam they take? No. Not being great at everything academic doesn't mean a kid is any less talented than someone who is. It just means their interests -- and talents -- are in other places, waiting to be tapped.
And it is by focusing on talent, instead of fixating on weakness, that people -- adults and children alike -- live their best life.
"It doesn't really matter what a child's talents and interests are, but letting him have in-depth exploration does," writes Mary Reckmeyer, Ph.D., author of Strengths Based Parenting. "Following an interest may lead to specific expertise or it may lead to something else entirely, but your child finding his own path is crucial.
"To develop a healthy sense of pride, confidence and identity, your child has to know what his talents are -- and be able to develop them into strengths."
James in the Future
I don't know what James will be later in life, but I can help shape who he will be. That's my most important responsibility. And, with Responsibility in my Top 5 themes, raising James to soar with his strengths is something that is constantly on my mind.
I have a head start with him. James is inching closer, day by day, to kindergarten. Therein lies another significant challenge: how to ensure that James' future educators know and take into account his talents. There's plenty of StrengthsSpotting to do in our house and conversations to have that revolve around what James does best. But as he gets older and goes to different schools, how do I hone in on his talents (while using my own) to make sure he avoids "the school cliff"? How can I be sure that his talents will come to define him as much as any of his tests scores would?
Speaking of worry -- every parent does, right? -- I'm also starting StrengthsSpotting anew with James' brother, Conor. Even though he's still an infant, I can already sense different and exciting talents than what his loving big brother showcased.
Again, my Responsibility beckons. I'm hypersensitive to treating the boys the same. I know they are unique, even as Conor navigates the developmental milestones his brother already accomplished. So in helping the younger one discover his talents as the months turn into years, I'm focused on doing so in a way that aligns as much to Conor's individual personality as possible. I'm sure I'll put my Relator, another one of my top five, to good use with both of them, cultivating unique and deep relationships with James and Conor that vary in so many ways excepting the amount of love present in both.
Exhausting? Sure. Exhilarating? Even more so. And as both boys grow up, I know my strengths-based parenting won't stop. So I'm preparing myself as any caring parent would: by listening to them, by communicating with them and by trying to get a few hours of sleep whenever I can.