I was sitting at dinner with my husband and two daughters, ages seven and four, when I was caught in a firestorm of sibling rivalry. Having two very feisty children, what starts out as jovial banter can very quickly descend into mudslinging mayhem without the appropriate channeling and redirection.In the midst of the battle, one word was uttered that caused the whole table to pause in disbelief: “Stupid.” This is one of those words that many parents proclaim is a bad word, a cuss word, a never-to-be-uttered-within-these-walls word. I stole that teachable moment like a bandit and waved it wildly in front of my children. What transpired amidst the redirection was a fascinating discussion about people and their inherent goodness.
I was quick to point out that there is no “stupid” person because every human being is capable of goodness and every human being has something good within. I wanted my children to understand that there are strengths and beauty in all of us. We just have to hunt for the good stuff. One of the most inspiring stories of the power of the belief in human goodness is Tayyab Rashid’s story of finding strength in trauma. With his life on the line, he asked his assailants, “What are you good at?” and his life was spared.
My children were behaving as many of us behave when we are interacting with people in the world. They were pointing out each other’s weaknesses, what was wrong, what bothered them about each another, instead of recognizing what is right, good, and strong. How easy it is to slide down that slippery slope of “Stupid.”Over the past two months I have seen countless posts on positive psychology list servers, as well as LinkedIn and Facebook groups asking about reliable measures for identifying character strengths in young children. As a parent coach and Positive Psychology practitioner, I believe that the most reliable measure for identifying character strengths in children ages three to nine is discussed in Park and Peterson’s 2006 study, Character Strengths and Happiness in Young Children. In the study, parents’ written descriptions of children between the ages of 3 and 9 years were analyzed for the presence of the 24 VIA character strengths as well as the children’s levels of happiness.
Findings from the study showed that love, zest, and hope were associated with happiness in very young children, and gratitude was associated with happiness among older children. The most common strengths identified by parents were love, kindness, creativity, and humor, while the most uncommon were authenticity, gratitude, modesty, forgiveness, and open–mindedness. Perhaps some strengths require greater psychosocial maturation to become evident.
In a follow-up study, Park and Peterson found a modest convergence between the character strengths of parents and those of their children, which was also validated by a related 2007 study of the genetic and environmental influences on positive traits of the VIA by Steger and colleagues. While certain character strengths, hope, zest, and love, are strong in all young children, they don’t always stay strong.
Given that genetics and environment play a role in developing children’s character, how can you identify, cultivate, and support your child’s unique constellation of strengths?The Benefits
Why does it matter? Think about how you feel when you are given the freedom to play with your strengths and how it feels when other people recognize what is right in you. Wouldn’t you want that for your children? But knowing, identifying, and cultivating strengths in young children goes beyond just good feelings. It has a positive effect on mental and emotional well-being, and it mitigates the risk of anxiety and depression in later years. It is also beneficial for you and your children for the following reasons:
- Spotting strengths in your children cultivates your appreciation for them and their unique gifts of character.
- Putting on your strengths lenses enables you to hunt for the good stuff and avoid pervasive, permanent thinking about problem areas. It keeps you optimistic.
- Your children will begin to develop an identity or sense of ownership around the strengths, “This is who I am,” and “This is what makes me unique and special.”
- You will model an understanding that everyone has potential and everyone possesses some inherent goodness.
- Your children’s self-efficacy will increase when you instill the belief that they are competent, confident, and capable of accomplishing their goals. You will become their “persuasive other.”
- Using strengths creates positive emotions in you and your child, further replenishing the inner wellspring of resources for challenging situations.
If Park and Peterson are right and parental documentation is a reliable measure for identifying strengths, where do you begin?
- Watch them play. The best way to identify strengths in two or three-year-olds is to observe carefully when they are playing with other children. Listen and do strengths spotting.
- Reflect on their peak experiences. Were there times you can recall when your children were at their best or in flow? When or where does each child shine?
- Ask your children’s teachers or caregivers questions like, “What are their strengths?” and “How would you describe them?”
- Expose your children to a wide range of activities, such as dance, music, art, literature, sports, and nature — and not just ones you are prone to enjoy. See if there are any elements within these activities that really light a spark. In her article, Developing Self-Motivation, Eleanor Chin discovered quite by accident that her daughter had a passion for archery.
- Imagine yourself giving a parent-report, such as the ones in the Park and Peterson studies. What would your answers be if you were asked to fill out questionnaires that asked questions about your children such as “Name your child’s strengths,” or “What does your child do really well?”
- Listen to their stories. Children give us clues about the way they perceive the world in the stories that they tell us. Create the space for conversation and storytelling at dinner time, in the car, and at bedtime. Listen for strengths in action. Pick up on their clues when they are sharing their day with you and point out the strengths that you hear in their words.
When you plant a new garden, you start with fertile soil. Strengths are fertile soil, and the activities below are seeds that will bloom into a beautiful, lush environment. Here are some ways to keep the garden growing:
- Have a Strengths Dinner. Let’s pretend that one of your child’s top strengths is gratitude. Celebrate his/her strength one night by writing a compliment card about how he/she showed gratitude that week and leave it at his/her place setting.
- Practice Strengths Spotting. Have discussions about how your child’s strengths show up in daily life.
- Help your children use their strengths in new ways. Make a list with each child of all the activities he or she can engage in during any given week that would activate top strengths. Keep the lists visible and encourage them to try a new one each day.
- Collect comments about each other’s strengths. Put a white tablecloth on the dinner table and ask everyone in the family to write on it with fabric marker.
- Create situation cards and ask what would you do if?
- Speak the language. I have mentioned in previous articles that my family and I use Virtues Cards on a weekly basis. Visit The Virtues Project and purchase a set to use with your family. Do a weekly virtues pick. At dinnertime or bedtime, discuss what that virtue looks and sounds like. Talk about where that virtue showed up in your lives.
- Make a Strengths Wall in each child’s bedroom. Collect artifacts that demonstrate that child’s strengths.
- Make a Strengths Journal for both parents and children.
- Create a Positive Portfolio. Get a special wooden box for each child and let them decorate their own boxes. Encourage them to collect artifacts that remind them of their best selves.
- Create Strengths Storybooks. Paste pictures from real life on blank white paper and draw lines underneath. Help your children write stories about their lives and talk about their strengths.
- Share strengths stories in children’s literature. Find picture books or chapter books with characters that embody specific strengths and share them with your children.
Identifying and cultivating strengths in young children inspires appreciation for who they are and ignites their senses of possibility. As a Positive Psychology community, we can start early and prevent the median age of anxiety and depression from spiraling downward. I find it fitting to close out this article with a song by Red Grammer. Imagine a world where every child was recognized for his or her unique strengths. That would surely be beautiful.
See Me Beautiful By Red Grammer
See me beautiful
Look for the best in me
It’s what I really am
And all I want to be
It may take some time
It may be hard to find
But see me beautiful
See me beautiful
Each and every day
Could you take a chance
Could you find a way
To see me shining through
In everything I do
And see me beautiful
Editor’s Note: This article is included in Part 2 on applications of character strengths of the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C., Park, N. (2006a). Character Strengths and Happiness among Young Children: Content Analysis of Parental Descriptions. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 524-539.
Rashid, T. (2011). Using Strengths at a Time of Trauma. YouTube video, VIA Strengths Library.
Steger, M. F., Hicks, B. M., Kashdan, T. A., Krueger, R. F. & Bouchard, T. J. (2007). Genetic and environmental influences on the positive traits of the Values in Action classification, and biometric covariance with normal personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 524-539.
Fox Eades, J. (2008). Celebrating Strengths: Building Strengths-based Schools. UK: Capp Press.
Siblings (Young and beautiful) courtesy of zilverblat
Innocence courtesy of Julien Charpentier
Group of children courtesy of Renee Barron
Watching children play courtesy of NeilsPhotography
Eat Your Greens courtesy of Angela Sevin