This is third in a series of posts exploring the way kids can be intelligent, courageous, good with other people, involved to their communities and connected with something larger than themselves – all depending on the strengths they already possess.
The purpose of the series is to give you new ideas for encouraging an insecure child. Sometimes, saying “I love you” and “I think you’re great” don’t have as much impact as you wish they would.
For some kids, just going to school every day is an act of courage. Between social drama, academic pressure and body insecurities, it can all be so hard. It takes courage.
Here are four different ways your child might be showing courage. If so, tell them you see it and admire them for it. If not, the good news is that, like all strengths, these can be built with practice and with self-awareness – and the benefits will last far beyond their school years.
Bravery. A child with bravery as a strength will speak up for what is right, act on his convictions even if they aren’t popular, and will not shrink from threats, challenges or difficulties. The brave child will stand up to bullies, even on behalf of other kids. They may befriend a new student or someone else others often exclude. If you’re trying to build or encourage bravery, talk with your child about other times they’ve been brave, how they did it and how they could do it again now. Tell them you know they’re going to have to be brave, and it might be tough, but you believe in them. Later, ask them to tell you about being brave and respond really positively. On the other hand, if your child is doing some things that seem brave to her but you consider dangerous or reckless – like that scene from “Footloose” where the girl stands between two moving trucks, with a foot in each window – you can say you see the appeal of it but that when her health or life are at stake, bravery needs to be balanced with perspective or prudence or self-regulation, strengths that are covered in other parts of this series. This approach allows you to have a serious conversation without using the negative language that can end in a fight or your child just tuning you out.
Honesty. Honesty is about speaking the truth but so much more: it’s presenting oneself in a genuine way and acting in a sincere way. A child with this strength will be unpretentious and will take responsibility for his feelings and actions. Essentially, it means being true to yourself and authentic to others. The honest child might say, “I’m not perfect, but I’m okay. And so are you.” Honestly, if I were magic, I’d give every child on earth the strength of honesty – the ability to accept themselves and other people the way they are. Insecurity would plummet, bullying would vanish, and kids could get on with the business of simply being the people they were born to be. Three of the best ways to build this strength in a child are 1) acknowledge that it takes courage to be honest and give them kudos when they are; 2) help them embrace their strengths as part of their real, positive, authentic selves; and 3) be okay with who YOU are. It can be hard to show up as yourself in middle school and high school (and even later) because there’s such a natural desire to fit in and to morph yourself into someone more acceptable to whoever’s judging. It takes a lot of work to be this ourselves, let alone teach it to our children – but so worth it.
Perseverance. A child with perseverance as a strength will finish what he starts despite any obstacles that might arise. He’ll keep going no matter what and actually enjoy completing things. He will most likely do well in school and afterwards as well; perseverance is linked to academic achievement from middle school through college and to professional success as well. Perseverance is a combination of effort and time. If you have a child who struggles with either or both, build this strength little by little. I’m going to introduce a concept here that works for any strength you’re trying to build but can be especially helpful for the strengths that don’t seem fun: focus on the physical feeling that comes from making progress. So, for example, if your son can read for only ten minutes before getting antsy and losing focus, spend some time talking about the good feelings (success, accomplishment, doing what the teacher expects, etc.) he gets from just ten minutes of focused effort. Get really detailed about this: how does he think about himself when he nails that? Is there a kind of “Yes!” feeling he gets anywhere in his body? Then, aim for 12 minutes. Or 11. Build on those positive thoughts and feelings teeny bit by teeny bit, and you’ll be encouraging the kind of intrinsic rewards that help kids do this for themselves – while they’re in school and long after they’ve left home.
Zest. I’m sure you know what zest looks like in a kid. 😉 Zesty kids are full of excitement and energy. Life feels like an adventure to them; they have a pure enthusiasm for life. It is a common strength in young children but less common in adults, which is unfortunate because it’s consistently one of the top two character strengths most associated with life satisfaction. Unfortunately, it isn’t always a strength beloved by teachers, who need to get through a curriculum! If you’re trying to build zest in a child with low energy or enthusiasm, the trick is to find out what lights them up and help them get more of it, whether it’s a physical activity or something that ignites their imagination. A child with “too much” zest might just need coaching about the right time and place to express their energy or, as Raffi would say, to wiggles their waggles away. We all need to be the boss of the strengths that come most naturally to us.
How You Can Make This Work Even Better
To really amp up the effectiveness of all this, talk to your kids about how you’re drawing on your own courage to deal with something tough in your life. Maybe for you it’s going to work every day, dealing with a difficult relationship or a parent with a chronic illness. We all have something, and showing your kids that you struggle too – and how you tap into strengths to deal with it – will not only help them, it’ll bring you closer.
In the meantime, tell me what you think! And if you try using any of this information to encourage your child, how did it go? What can we learn from you?