Updated: Dec 5, 2018
Ask your kid or teenager what their character strengths are, and you'll either get silence, a snicker or an irrelevant answer. You'd think that with all these selfies, they know themselves! But, they often don't. Here's why, and what YOU can do about it!
1. They think in terms of accomplishments, not traits
The first things kids will think of is “I’m the fastest runner in my class” or “I won the Math competition”. They may use this to infer that they’re physically strong, or are “smart”, but they almost never deduce that it’s because of character strengths: perseverance, self regulation and love of learning. Why? Unfortunately, the world emphasizes the win, not what it takes to get there. How would they know!
2. Negative traits are more emphasized than positive ones
The reality is, kids DO get feedback on their character traits - but it’s most likely when they display “negative behaviors”. Kids will get called out when they fall behind in school, and be called lazy. But when they’re on track, are they always praised for their discipline or sense of responsibility? No, not nearly as often. That means that kids can give you a list of all what they do wrong, but rarely what they do right.
3. They don’t know what possible character strengths there are
When we ask kids what character strengths they think they have, they get stuck in understanding what that means. They think of academics, maybe their sense of responsibility (again, because of school work!), but they don’t think of kindness, perspective or humor (yup, it’s a character strength!). They don’t know the list of possibilities. Why? They don’t have the list! They know the list of subjects they’re taking that year, the list of expectations that parents have of them (do chores, be polite, do your work), and the list of things that make them cool (whatever that is!) but they don’t know the list of character strengths.
4. They don’t have opportunities to reflect
Understanding one’s character strengths is one major form of self awareness, a skill that is only possible when you have the time and tools to reflect (among other things). Between school work, sports practices and social media, they just don’t have that opportunity. And it makes sense; just like every other task on their “to do” list: unless there’s time crafted for such exercises, they will never happen.
So... what can you do about it?
The first step is to look back at these reasons and consider ways to reverse them. Along with acknowledging accomplishments, highlight what behaviors they did that got them there. In fact, highlighting these behaviors is much more constructive than praising the outcome (more on that in another post!). Emphasize the positive more than the negative: everyday, consider one positive behavior that you can compliment them on - it’s hard, because we’re not used to it. Give them a list! You can start with a list of characteristics that your family values, and work your way up to a research-based list like the Via Character Strengths. Lastly, carve a weekly slot into their schedule for reflection and discussion. Talk about their week, or even about yours, and analyze what character strengths you showed or wish you’d show. Help them build their reflection muscle!