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Home » All, Gratitude, Parenting & Schools, Strengths, Taking Action

See Me Beautiful: Cultivating Strengths in Young Children

By on September 20, 2012 – 1:40 pm  12 Comments

Elizabeth Elizardi, MAPP '10, is a parent coach, educational consultant, and founder of Strengths Hub, LLC, an online parenting community. Building on her experience as a parent, educator, MAPP graduate, and online contributor to Psychology Today, Elizabeth hopes to build an international network of flourishing parents who cultivate and exercise strategies for increased well-Being while raising children. Full Bio. Elizabeth's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.



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.

    Siblings

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?

   Perceiving 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.
     

Identification

If Park and Peterson are right and parental documentation is a reliable measure for identifying strengths, where do you begin?

Watching children play

  • 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.

   Green and Growing

Cultivation

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

 


 

References:

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.


Images

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

12 Comments »

  • Beautiful article Elizabeth – positive and inspiring, while taking the reality of parenting into account. It’s not all laughter and roses, and yet our contributions as parents are so important, and yet (on the other other hand) our children are their own people and we need to grow and nurture them in all the best possible ways.

    I really appreciate the exercises and approaches you suggest. Your love for your children, for positive psychology and for recognizing the good in everyone (especially children) shines through.

  • Dear Elizabeth,

    Wonderful article. May every teacher, parent, and practitioner working with kids find this article in front of them. Clearly you are part of the change people want to see in the world for their kids…an approach that leans more heavily on a positive, strengths-based education. The energy is really blooming in many countries for this. To complement this, we are currently attempting to validate a short version of the VIA Youth Survey (about half the questions as the longer, well-validated version on the VIA site). We’ll keep you posted, and keep up the great work.

    Ryan

  • Judy Krings says:

    Exquisitely relevant for parents and grandparents. Thanks for giving me the idea of the BEST Christmas gifts I can give my grand kids. I will make a photo collage of them using their strengths! And I will ask them their favorite animal and ask them what strengths they wee that animal use and suggest they draw a photo or find a song that fits for the picture. To me all strengths can fuel and ignite well-being. And fun to boot. Great win win to make kids’ heads spin. Ours, too.

    Actually, I am printing this out for each of my kids to gift them with the poem as well as your super motivational strengths spotting lists and idea.

    A++, Elizabeth. I can see writing a book on this. Thanks so much!

  • Elizabeth says:

    Thank you Lisa, Leona, Judy and Ryan for your kind words of support. I arrived at UPenn two years ago with the vision of bringing Positive Psychology to young children through parent coaching, early childhood consulting and lots of writing! It starts with building awareness, which was the motivation behind writing this artcile. It humbles me to see it so well received. My top strength is Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence and I see opportunities every day to witness the beauty of strengths emerging in my children. It has certainly made parenting much more enjoyable and it has built an intrinsic motivation in my children to be the change, model human goodness/virtue and talk about their experiences in this tricky world. Judy, a book is in the works, but it needs lots of TLC! That’s my big goal for the year ahead!

  • Sooooooooo good. Rich article filled with tons of practical ideas. I’m spreading this far and wide.

  • Oz says:

    I know I’ll be accused of negativity but …….

    Some strengths seem more important than others eg self regulation. Isnt it important to develop these, even though they my not be popular. The irony is that persevering with something you aren’t good at develops self reg whereas doing what you are good at might have the opposite effect.

  • Shannon Polly says:

    Great article! Even though my child (soon to be children) are too young right now, I’m holding on to this!

    Thanks so much!

    Shannon

  • Judy Krings says:

    Great news about your book, Elizabeth. I can feel positivity rustling in the colorful fall leaves here in WI.

    And Ryan, I am thrilled to know you are validating the Youth VIA. Terrific!

    I smile, too, Elizabeth, as Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence is my #1 strength, too.

    I can see you name up in hot pink, chartreuse and turqouise lights already!

  • Judy Krings says:

    Great news about your book, Elizabeth. I can feel positivity rustling in the colorful fall leaves here in WI.

    And Ryan, I am thrilled to know you are validating the Youth VIA. Terrific!

    I smile, too, Elizabeth, as Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence is my #1 strength, too.

    I can see you name up in hot pink, chartreuse and turquoise lights already!

  • Lovely article Elizabeth, I’ve already passed it on to other parents and professionals who work with children.

    On Strengthspotting I just wanted to add that Alex Linley has a whole chapter about this in his book Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. I hope this link works:

    http://www.cappeu.com/Portals/3/Files/Average_to_Aplus_Chapter_4_Strengthspotting.pdf

    Warm wishes
    Bridget

  • Elizabeth says:

    Bridget,
    Thanks for the link. It opened to a blank set of 45 pages. I would love to see the chapter if you can figure out another way to send it to me!

    Oz,
    Thanks for your comments. The Benjamin Franklin effect of choosing virtues or character strengths to grow (that you deem important) and being deliberate about cultivating them in your life is a powerful one. I think if it is a personal decision, then why not go for it? The problem in our society has become institutions or systems that reward certain virtues over others, like the American Education system that places a large emphasis on self regulation over other strengths like creativity. I see what you are saying about how focusing on lesser strengths leads to greater self regulation, but I don’t agree with your point about self regulation being diminished by pursuing what comes naturally. Personally, I find that dedicating time and energy to my strengths leads to higher productivity and greater self regulation because engagement is high, emotions are generally elevated and I bring a broadened perspective to my work. I’m not as distracted!

    Elizabeth

  • Angie says:

    Thank you for a very interesting and inspiring article. I am referencing it my up coming blog post. I am a wellness researcher and fascinated with the subject of character strengths after studying positive psychology as part of my Master of Wellness. I am particularly interested in how strengths based development can be used to help kids and adolescence develop long terms tools and behaviors (into adulthood) that result in positive impacts on marine and other natural environments. If children are able to use their strengths (and virtues)regularly thereby developing them into adulthood, will they be more conscious and responsible of their impact on their environment – even when life gets in the way?
    Just some of my musing as I try to develop the research questions to this topic. Your article has helped me move a little further, thank you

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