Like any parent, I love and cherish my kids. And like many parents I marvel at how the three of them are profoundly different in behavior and outlook, despite the fact that they all hail from a common DNA pool with very similar social conditioning as they have grown up in our little tribe. I began to notice it really early on; Lydia the expansive and impulsive adventurer who leads with her gut; Phoebe the analytical and disciplined thinker who leads with her head, and Esther the creative empath who leads with her heart.
We all want happiness, fulfillment and meaningful lives for our kids, don’t we? And yet, schools largely don’t spend much time focusing on these outcomes. Their focus is on helping children achieve success, teaching them discipline, focus and how to get things done. Something important has gotten lost in the translation between the two, and I would argue that as parents, it is our prime responsibility to bridge them in a way that enables our child to flourish.
Every one of us is wonderfully unique and special despite the combination of the inherited characteristics of our gene pool, and the nurturing effects of our family and environment; that’s part of what makes the human race so wildly fascinating and at times, frustrating. Quite apart from the complex differences in their personalities which I am not going to attempt to decode here, what I love about this diversity in my own kids is that it manifests itself with very differing outlooks on life, different preferences and needs, differing interests and differing aspirations.
These differences show up in the hobbies they pursue, the subjects at school they respond to, the company they keep – even, and most especially, the hopes and dreams they hold for their lives. We demonstrate our character to the world through these choices, these strengths and virtues, and they illuminate the path ahead of us. Our primary role as parents is to notice these strengths when we see them in action, and actively steer our kids toward them. This means accepting that our kids may be quite different to us and that our own selfish hopes and dreams for our children may be different to what’s really best for them. It’s what I call ‘the platinum rule’ – treat your kids the way they need to be treated.
During my time at Facebook, we talked a lot about how these character strengths were the secret sauce within each of us, where they would give us the greatest room for potential, for performance and growth. And that showed up in the data, which positively correlated strengths with performance, loyalty and fulfillment at work. And the same potential holds true for our children, because I would argue, that nurturing our kids to discover and play to their strengths is the key to success and what drives a meaningful and fulfilling life. I’ve learned the hard way, that trying to be something you’re not is just way too hard, and eventually the dissonance it creates is going to undermine your confidence and the quality of your contribution to the world.
Sadly, most parents just don’t think this way. Gallup once famously published a study that found 78% of parents would rather focus only on the ‘F’ in their kids report card, instead of paying attention to where their child was flourishing and outperforming and helping their child to achieve greatness there. For my middle daughter Phoebe, this was discovering that no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t get to grips with Spanish. So instead of forcing her down the path of working on a subject she hated and underperformed in, in the vain belief that it would be good for her, her Mom and I instead encouraged her to drop the subject and focus on her true strengths – particularly Modern History and Social Sciences (Phoebe wants to be a politician some day). There, we know we’ll see giants leaps in learning and performance (or to put it in the parlance of work, ‘engagement’).
So what does focusing on being a positive and strengths-oriented parent look and sound like? Here are just a few things I’ve learned along the way that you might find useful:
- Pay close to attention to where your child spends their time and what they say about the things they love to do, and actively nurture these. Look and listen for where positive energy shows up in their words and behaviors, and their level of receptiveness to certain activities and subjects – inside school and out.
- Catch them doing things well and where they are getting things right, and give them positive encouraging feedback. Invest your precious time and your resources in helping them master and build excellence in those things they love to do.
- Encourage your children to play as much as they work – because let’s face it, life is incredibly depressing without it. Tiger Moms and Dads, take note: you run the risk of leaving your child a high achieving husk without bringing joy and space to play, even and perhaps especially, in High School.
- Learn about your child’s character strengths – there are some great tools and resources out there to help you learn more about this. Try the Strengths Explorertoolkit from Gallup, which is designed for 10-14 year olds and comes with a parenting kit to learn more about their strengths. And check out the free VIA24assessment for older teens.
- Foster regular conversations about what went well at school and what was fun. In our family, we do this with regular family meetings where each of us talk about what went well at school this week, and one thing we’re grateful for (we also encourage our kids to share appreciable feedback for each sibling).
- Be a positive advocate for your child’s unique strengths and passions with their teachers and school counselors, because some teachers are so busy focusing on delivering the curriculum or are insufficiently informed about strengths to know how to bring balance to performance feedback.
Understanding and engaging your child’s strengths in this way is just one part of a wider field of positive parenting, which this post can’t hope to tackle. But if you want to explore this space further, then check out these resources. The returns are potentially huge in wellness as well as performance – research has shown these techniques can act as a powerful bulwark to teenage angst and depression. I also think they can build a powerful and positive anchor in the relationship and connection you can have with your child; one that is both practical, loving and centered on the child – and not you, or only the system.
Ultimately, and this is a selfish plea for those of us working in the field of human development in the workplace, positive strengths-based parenting builds confidence, clarity and resilience in young people which is desperately needed as they enter today’s workforce. Because we know that positive strengths-oriented organizations significantly outperform those that don’t across many different performance outcomes, this work has to start somewhere, and I believe that this is around the kitchen table. Strong and positive families feed positive schools and colleges, which in turn have the potential to produce powerful, highly engaged women and men that America desperately needs to maintain competitiveness in the world.