“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.“
One of the best ways to help children become happy and well adjusted is to help them discover their strengths and talents so they can find their niche in the world. I have worked with many young people on the margins of society who are struggling and feel they don’t fit in. Almost universally, these young people have a bad experience of the education system, where they did not succeed as well as others, and this made them feel bad about themselves and reduced their confidence.
From this perspective these young people were at risk of dropping out of school and getting involved in delinquency or other problem behaviours. When meeting these young people for the first time, my goal was to counteract the negativity in their lives and to try to discover with them what they were good at and what their positive passions in life might be.
I remember one young man I worked with in London, who, having been abandoned by his parents, had dropped out of school and was already on the fringes of crime. When you looked at his life it was hard to find things that were going right or things that he was doing well.
However, I discovered he had a grandmother that he very much cared for, and that was the most important relationship in his life. She had recently become ill and he would travel to her to look after her. Despite his “tough exterior” this boy displayed a sensitive, caring side towards his grandmother; this was the first strength we identified.
In talking to him about his grandmother he told me about how she had taught him to cook when he was younger and now as she was sick he would return to her weekly to cook for her; this was the second passion we discovered – his talent for cooking.
By talking about his strengths and the people he cared for, this changed the conversation and helped him begin to see that there were things he was doing right and that he had talents he could contribute. While of course it would be a long road to help this young person turn his life around, starting with his strengths, passions and those he cared most about was the first step.
Alternatively, many anxious or unconfident children might be constantly self-critical putting themselves down or they might be overly self-conscious making them awkward socially. In both cases, discovering their strengths and passions can act like an antidote to these problems.
Doing activities they love, they can feel confident and strong and forget their self-consciousness. Further, such activities bring out the best in them and give them a way of socialising and making friends.
Finding your child’s talents and strengths
One of the great gifts you can give your children is to help them discover their passions, talents and strengths and then give them the opportunity to explore and express these. This is an enormous boost to their confidence and sense of wellbeing.
This starts with noticing early on what your children are good at and what their interests are. Some children might display a talent for sporting or physical endeavours, whereas others’ strengths might be around getting along with other children.
In looking for your children’s passions, you are not looking for things that they are the best at or things that they always win at, as then you would just be reinforcing an unhelpful over-competitive education system.
Instead, you are looking for simple things that they enjoy doing and like learning about. You are looking for things that bring out their best.
These could be simple everyday interests as well as formal activities. These could be things they learn in school or classes, with you in the home or elsewhere in the community, or they could just be simple hobbies and interests that they love.
The goal as a parent is to help your children develop a portfolio of passions, hobbies and interests that they will take through life.
In developing your children’s passions and interests, I am not suggesting that you have to find a class to take your children to in order to develop their talents. Indeed, often the best interests are self-driven, which they can largely do at home or in their own time and perhaps share with a few people they care about. Indeed, often the most enduring lifelong interests that children develop are the ones they learn from their parents and which are a special source of connection between them.
Think through each of your children’s passions
What hobbies and activities are each of your children interested in?
What projects evoke your children’s greatest commitment?
What activities do they enjoy the most?
What are your children’s unique talents and strengths?
What activities allow them to express these talents?
How can you encourage all the above in their lives?
About the Author
This article by Prof . John Sharry was originally published in The Irish Times newspaper. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every second Tuesday. For further information on building children’s self-esteem, read John’s book: ‘Bringing Up Happy, Confident Children’.