She’s never going to want to run ever again. I told myself this watching my then-10-year-old daughter run in her first elementary school track meet, lagging behind the faster runners, red-faced, and breathing heavily. She wasn’t last, but she certainly wasn’t first. My heart sank for her. As she (finally) crossed the finish line and I went to meet her, nothing could have made me guess what would happen next. 

The girl loved it. She went on and on about the strategy her coach told her to use, the fact that she had passed another runner (albeit the one that came in last place), and how she felt herself “kick it in” on the last leg. Well, I’ll be darned. 

Fast forward three years later. (Warning: total dad-brag about to happen…) Today I watched my daughter run in the second cross country meet of her 8th-grade year… as a member of the varsity high school team. She came in 8th place overall. And afterward, she went on and on about her strategy, passing the girl in front of her (actually, several girls), and “kicking it in” over the last hill. She’s found something she loves. 

It’s so amazing to see your kid discover and develop their strengths. And although I can’t take much of the credit (because let’s face it—I’m not about to run three miles in the hot August sun in the middle of a field), I’d like to think that my wife and I did something right to help her develop her love of running. 

Have you seen that spark in your child’s eyes when they’ve found something they’re strong in?

Whether it’s an external activity like running or painting, or an internal quality such as compassion for others, you can use some definite strategies to encourage your child’s strengths. 

Encourage experimentation.

Kids in that 8 to 12-year-old range are in a stage where they are naturally “trying on” pieces of themselves. They aren’t quite sure if they’re into competitive sports, artistic activities, problem-solving tasks, specific topics of study, or a combination of these! In our house, we’ve always had a philosophy of if it piques your interest, let’s just try it.” There were definitely activities that were off the table; neither of my daughters had any kind of an interest in softball or basketball, so we didn’t push it. But if there was any hint of I wonder what that would be like, we did what we could to find short-term opportunities to try it on for size. (We prompted our runner-daughter to attend a week-long cross country camp the summer after her 5th-grade year, where she fell in love with the sport, and the rest is *current* history!) 

Here’s another approach: a friend of mine has a rule with his family where each of his children is to be involved in one artistic activity and one physical activity. This is a brilliant idea to encourage your children to discover and build on those strengths. 

Throw them in the deep end of the pool.

After falling in love with cross country at summer camp, it was a no-brainer for my daughter to want to run on the middle school team the following year. My response to her: Okay, but if you’re going to commit, you’re going to commit. What are you going to do to prepare yourself for the upcoming season? The result: several days a week over the summer, she ran as far as she could while I biked beside her (Did I mention I don’t run??). 

When your child has found that thing they are interested in, encourage them to dive in headfirst and soak up every ounce of experience they can with it. Coach them and encourage them in experiencing both the joy as well as the gritty work that comes with their strengths. (Running is fun when the conditions are right, but you have to be willing to run in the rain and the cold if you want to get better.) Obviously, approach this with a strong dose of grace. But help them see the value in improving upon what they are passionate about. 

Ask lots of questions.

A surefire way to encourage your child in their strengths and interests is to show interest yourself. Assume the role of the complete novice and allow them to be the expert. There have been so many conversations about running simply sparked by my asking a “dumb” question. (So, when you’re in a race, are you allowed to elbow people? And off we go on a great discussion on cross country rules…) 

Don’t forget to ask questions like, “Are you sure you still enjoy this?” Just because a your child is good at something doesn’t mean they enjoy it or can’t get “burned out” on it. Sometimes parents try to live out their dreams through their children. Just because you were a great swimmer, and maybe your child is too, it doesn’t mean they share your passion for it. They might hate it. Ask questions to make sure your child isn’t participating in something because they know it makes YOU happy.

Help them find other sources of inspiration for their strengths, especially things to read.

Kids will naturally eat up any kind of extra bits of media and information on the strengths they are passionate about. Art, books, hiking magazines, cooking tutorial videos, photography blogs… all these are great resources to “pass along” to your child who wants to go waist-deep into their strengths. For her birthday a couple of years ago, I bought my daughter a subscription to a women’s running magazine. And now, I am receiving a constant education on the value of spiked running shoes, how to train for marathons, and what you should eat before a race (evidently chocolate cake doesn’t make the list)

Help them find a community that will encourage them in their strengths.

It’s one thing to encourage your kids from the home front to pursue and strengthen their interest. But your encouragement receives an extra boost when you help them find other kids—just like them—who are passionate about the same thing. And let’s face it: not every interest has a ready-made team waiting for them (like, say, cross country). But nowadays, if you look hard enough (like internet searches of what’s in your community), you can usually find a common interest group with just about any activity. And if you can’t, talk with your child about starting a group yourselves. There may be a huge number of kids ready to come out of the woodwork to share their passion for bead art, geocaching, or videocasting with others… just like them

Help them and encourage them to match their strengths to goals, projects, and experiences.

In his (excellent) book, Artificial Maturity, Tim Elmore says that directing kids’ strengths toward real-life ventures helps them form a clear sense of identity and prepares them for life as an adult. You can’t go wrong with that. And besides, giving your child a sense of mission with their strengths puts meaning behind their interests. 

For example (warning: another dad-brag is coming your way…), my younger daughter discovered an interest in videocasting. She formed her own YouTube channel, recorded herself hosting topics from craft projects to how to clean your room to fun family activities. Then she edits and puts the videos out there for family members and close friends to view. (I have had the distinct honor of guest-starring in a number of her productions.) 

Again, I can’t take all the credit, but we’ve tried to encourage her as best we can and help her think how she can use this interest to help other people.

As a new 6th-grader in middle school, she has built upon those strengths and has now transitioned to hosting her own podcast, using her school’s recording equipment to interview teachers in her school about their experiences as young people and making it available to the students. (Seriously, I’m totally humbled by my kids. At their age, I was content just reaching the next level of Pac-Man.)

One last thing about encouraging your child’s strengths…

At times I have done the above very well with my kids, and other times… not-so-well. But I have found that encouraging my kid’s strengths has actually afforded me opportunities to connect with them and have a deeper relationship with them. The conversations that have resulted have been invaluable. And I wouldn’t trade the experience of riding my bike (what felt like) hundreds of miles beside my oldest daughter running or hamming it up on video with my younger daughter for anything. And I’m pretty confident they won’t forget those times either. Value those times and soak it up. It’s amazing to see your kids grow.

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