PAREN(T)HESIS — Supporting Strengths Or Working On Weaknesses

June 1, 2018

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

Local kid does well” is always a good storyline, and I really enjoyed seeing someone from the greater Milwaukee area excel at sports. Divine Savior Holy Angels High School graduate Arike Ogunbowale plays guard at University of Notre Dame and helped her basketball team win this spring’s  National Collegiate Athletic Association championship. She is a steady player who started all 38 games this season and led the league by scoring an average 20.8 points per game. Her junior season will best be remembered with her last-second shot during overtime versus powerhouse UConn to take Notre Dame to the national championship, and then her incredible winning shot in that championship game over Mississippi State. She earned the tournament’s most valuable player award.

Though I have never met Arike, I admit that I felt a distant pride in her NCAA Final Four performances. Watching the victories from my living room TV, I thought things like, “You go, girl!” and “She is from my hometown!” I called my parents, who are big prep basketball fans, to make sure they were watching. Then I turned back to the TV and chuckled a bit in appreciation when she explained during an interview that she had been practicing “late game,” setting herself up for success in last-second situations. After a victory she gave her mom, Yolanda, a heartwarming on court hug that recirculated at Mother’s Day and made me smile again.

Then last month I got to see Arike compete as the first college athlete on the TV show Dancing With the Stars. On the first episode, she joked about being out of her comfort zone, given that she is great at basketball (and performed really well in soccer in high school, too) but dancing isn’t her strong suit. She hesitated to wear the heeled shoes that female dancers typically wear to perform. She balanced dancing rehearsals and performances with the heavy workload of the end of an academic semester. Unfortunately, she was eliminated on the second week.

Seeing her publicly put effort into something out of her strike zone made me think about parenting my own child and ponder whether it is better to help a child bolster her strengths or improve on her weaknesses. There’s never a shortage of advice about parenting and almost every conceivable aspect of modern parenting seems to be addressed in a book. The advice on this topic includes some experts who say that we parents shouldn’t follow our instincts to focus on the weaknesses but instead should enhance strengths. When we see mostly good grades on a report card and one bad grade, we shouldn’t focus too much on the bad grade. We don’t want children to think, “My dad/mom only picks on me and never notices what I do well.”

One term for this approach is strength- or the plural “strengths-based parenting” (and a well-regarded book carries that title). Experts describe a true strength as something that a child is not only good at, but also chooses to do often and obtains energy from doing. In the expert’s definition, a child who is good at chess but never chooses to play a match outside of practice or competition does not have a true strength for chess.

Experts say it’s important to recognize a strength and then help children develop it by providing the proper materials at home. Someone good at drawing needs a full craft box and plenty of paper. This seems a bit obvious but apparently it’s frequently overlooked.

These experts don’t mean that parents and other caregivers should not address weaknesses at all, but to resist the urge to blow weaknesses out of proportion. It applies to ourselves, too. Author Daniel H. Pink advises people to achieve satisfying, productive careers by thinking about what they do consistently well and what gives energy rather than drains it.

Parents who want to assess their child’s strengths can use Gallup tests, but I would think most parents can name their child’s strengths. After all, it’s the thing they are often asking to do. (Researchers point out that parents and other caregivers should also encourage character strengths.)

As final report cards roll in, parents will see a mixture of grades. The low ones should only be part of the conversation.

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at jill@bayviewcompass.com. 

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