When I was a kid, my grandmother took me to a craft festival in Berea, Kentucky. I loved going from booth to booth and admiring all the handmade items—years before DIY was cool by the way. One vendor showcased custom harps. They were gorgeous and I oohed and aahed over them for the better part of the trip. A few days later, my generous grandmother had a proposition for me: if I agreed to take harp lessons in Cincinnati, she would have a child’s harp made for me to practice on. Any kid with a lick of sense and foresight would have agreed immediately, but not me. I turned down her offer because I had been more interested in the appearance of the instrument than actually playing it. Now, of course, I wish I had taken the lessons.
The moral of my shortsighted story is that we, as parents, can’t force a child to do something he has no interest in—at least not successfully. But parents can absolutely help a child identify and navigate his strengths, and then apply them to areas in which he expresses interest.
Strengths can show up in unusual ways. Often, they present as quirks. My Henry has always been a climber. From the very beginning, he was scaling couches and shimmying up door frames. He also lends toward being fairly unfocused until given clear goals and instructions. Enter the world of rock climbing. The first time his dad hooked him into a carabiner and instructed him to reach the top of the wall, Henry’s love of scaling large objects and his desire for clear direction reached new heights. Graham uncovered his strengths (which were there all along) and matched them with a new interest.
Similarly, our Harper is a very self-assured child who also happens to be a little sponge of information. She listens deeply, processes quickly, and projects confidently. Of all of our children’s learning styles and natural giftings, we recognized that Harper is the most likely to be successful in music lessons. By observing her strengths, we were able to steer her toward a new interest. After taking an Instrument Exploration class this spring, Harper is now in love with the ukulele and the fiddle and can’t wait to begin lessons this fall.
As parents, we must remember that a child’s interests may change over time. Maddox seemed to be made for ballet. Determined and focused, she is long and lean in frame, and has taken lessons since she was 3. But this year, her classes became much more technique-heavy, which caused her to feel unsure and self-critical. As her interest in ballet waned, another passion began to present itself clearly: debate and negotiation. She joined her school’s debate team and began competing. She even participated in the World Peace Game recently where children have to negotiate and problem solve to achieve peace between four countries. Focus and determination—two natural strengths—shifted from the ballet bar to the debate floor, and Graham and I agreed to let that play out. We could have made her stay in dance; she might have become a beautiful ballerina one day. But allowing her to play to her strengths and diversify her interests may benefit her more in the long run.
Summer is a perfect time to evaluate your child’s strengths and interests. Talk about these things with children who are old enough to articulate themselves, or take time to observe the following:
Watch your child play and interact with objects and with others. What do those interactions reveal about his natural strengths?
Ask your child to tell you what brings her joy.
Is there an activity he hasn’t tried that he wants to? What seems interesting about that to him? (Don’t limit this to sports. Think drama, music, choir, painting, coding, woodworking, science experiments, book making, song writing, photography, gardening, baking, hiking, graphic design, movie making, and animal training).
Encourage risk taking.
Help her celebrate her differences. Encourage interests that are distinct from her siblings.
Affirm the strengths you see in your child—often. Even the ones that look like quirks.