Last month I had the privilege of spending four Saturday afternoons with 18 girls aged between 10 and 12 in the Girls’ Brigade at my church. My assignment was to work with them on developing talents and preparing for a Talent Show. How divisive! I thought. What about the girls without special abilities that could be paraded nor did not have the confidence to express their talents before their peers? I changed the lesson plan to focus on character strengths instead. Character strengths are great equalizers since every one has some. Helping my charges become aware of their strengths would build self-esteem and confidence as they discover goodness in themselves. The challenge was to teach these children about character strengths and produce an output for badge merits.
Positive Strengths Portfolio
I racked through my memories of MAPP at UPenn and all our readings and learning. How about a positive portfolio of strengths as a takeaway? A positive strengths portfolio would be a keepsake and practical application of their new awareness that will evoke pleasant thoughts and feelings and hold meaning in the future. Brilliant! A positive intervention The lesson for the first three weeks would help the girls build their portfolios and by the end of four weeks, they could also write a brief positive introduction to preface their individual portfolios.
Starting with an exploration of what gifts, talents and strengths were and how they differed, the children explained that “gifts were from God, you are born with them and you must make use of them or lose them. Same with talents which you have to work hard to develop them or they are wasted.”
I was so proud of them. They were so articulate despite their oblivion to the existence of the 800-page Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) by Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman.
“Strengths are … uh … God ..er the Holy Spirit … or Jesus … gives them to us to help us do things …”, they continued tentatively. This was understandable since Peterson and Seligman needed 10 criteria to distinguish character strengths from talents and other individual traits. Strengths had a moral content and in their simple way, the girls had recognized the ‘psychological ingredients – processes and mechanisms’ (CSV, p.13) of virtue.
Homework: List the Strengths of Someone You Admire
For homework, identify someone they admire and list that person’s gifts, talents, and strengths. Almost all of them named a parent or sibling except for two who named Mother Theresa and a pop idol. How did they choose? “Behavior. What they say. How that person treats me”.
Choosing that moment to teach them about the importance of mindfulness in our behavior (Langer), I asked them to ‘think of your behavior and what you have said since you walked into the room 15 minutes ago. What would an observer think of you?’ “Don’t know. Cannot remember. Don’t care.” I asked them whether they were conscious of being a good example to the younger members, the Cadets, and they lowered their eyes and smart retorts ceased.
‘Do you think you can become someone that others would admire? Can we change? Is that hard or easy?’ Changing habits is hard but not impossible. A little demonstration. ‘Take a piece of paper and write your mother’s name neatly on it, using your preferred hand. Next, switch hands, and write your own name below your mother’s name’. Moan and groans can be heard as they completed the task. Each girl exchanged paper with the girl on her left, and then determined if the person’s own name was written legibly.
Four girls’ handwriting were voted ’illegible’. They were asked to stand before the whole group to tell of they approached the task. “I can’t write with my left (right) hand. Nobody will be able to read my handwriting. This is so hard. I have to do this … urgh”.
On the contrary those with legible own name-writing had thought “This is so hard but I will try. Just do it. I am sure I can do this. Keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t panic.” A fine teaching moment on optimistic thinking and believing that effort can change the way we do things. Optimism (Seligman et al) and growth-mindedness (Carol Dweck) make change possible.
VIA Children’s Strengths
‘Do the VIA Children’s Strengths Survey online (www.authentichappiness.org) and take note of your top five strengths. For each of these strengths, list three examples of how you use or where you see that strength within you. Ask an older person who knows you well to give you an example of how you exercise that strength.’ Asian parents seldom praise their children or lavish appreciation for who they are. This was a chance for a young girl to receive some positive feedback and active constructive response about herself – an event which would elevate as well as ‘broaden and build’ her physical, intellectual and social resources for the future (Fredrickson).
At the end of four weeks, I had a group of girls who were more attentive and bouncy, eager to show off their positive Strengths portfolio and able to tell other members of their squadron about gifts, talents and strengths especially the 198 –item VIA survey. In return, I learned that there are opportunities for positive interventions and teaching positive psychology anywhere and any time.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Fredrickson, B. (1998 ). What good are positive emotions. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.
Langer, E. (1990). Mindfulness. Da Capo Press.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1995, 2007). The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and BuildLifelong Resilience. New York: Mariner Books
Kids Performing courtesy of Ted Ollikkala