06/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Joy, Success and Fulfillment For Your Child

Matt's dad was an all-star soccer player in college. There is nothing he wants more than for his son to follow in his footsteps, so naturally he is thrilled when Matt is assigned to the first string of the Tiger's soccer team.

"A chip off the old block! Matt's dad beams from the sidelines. What nobody knows is that while Matt is very good soccer player, it just isn't his strength. Matt would much rather spend his time with his nose in a book, or writing the wonderful science fiction stories that keep him busy for hours at a time.

Knowing your child's strengths is extremely important because at the end of the day, they are the things that will keep returning to draw your child's attention. Every child has strengths. When parents help children discover and use their strengths they are helping them find their best paths in life.

What exactly are strengths? Strengths are the things that energize a child. They are natural inclinations that feel "right" when they are engaged. They are yearnings, or feelings of being pulled in one direction over another. Children experience these feelings in three areas: Activity Strengths (the activities that you are naturally drawn to and engaged by doing), Relationship Strengths (the ways you relate with others that provide you the most satisfaction), and Learning Strengths (the ways you learn to optimize learning).

Activity Strengths

Activity Strengths are the activities that energize or truly engage children. Activity Strengths are different than talents. Talents are what a child is especially good at doing, and strengths are what energize him whether or not he is good at it. Sometimes parents and teachers confuse talents and strengths. Like Matt with his soccer, sometimes a child can have a talent in something but not particularly love to participate in the activity. It is important that parents steer their children toward their strengths because that is where the best opportunity to develop a passion -- and the more passions someone develops, the richer his life becomes.

Children have a better chance at developing lasting talent in their areas of strengths because they will be more inclined to stick to the activity and develop the discipline needed to develop true and lasting talent. This doesn't mean someone like Matt shouldn't be encouraged to play soccer, it simply means that children will get the most joy from doing things they feel they have a strength in and when they experience that joy they will then work harder to become an expert in that area.

Since Activity Strengths are feelings about participation, parents cannot tell children what their strengths are. Children need to be guided to self-reflection so they can tell their parents and teachers what they love to do. As a parent, you can keep a Strengths Journal for your child where you jot down observations you make about your child's preferences. You can begin by giving your child a choice of three chores (for example: making the bed, picking up toys, doing dishes). In your child's Strengths Journal, make a note of what he chooses. Watch your child as he does the chosen task and make note of what he does with ease and what frustrates him. These insights will be useful for a child later on when he is able to reflect on his behavior and articulate what does and does not energize him and why.

Relationship Strengths

Jody is a quiet girl. She has a few close friends, but she is not socially at the center of attention. One day her father asked me what he could do to help Jody become more outgoing and start to be a better leader. Most parents want their children to be outgoing leaders, but not all children have these Relationship Strengths. Relationship Strengths are the ways that a person relates to others which causes the greatest feelings of satisfaction with the relationship. All children have something positive to contribute to relationships. Relationship Strengths are the ways that each child interacts with others that they feel most naturally inclined to and the most comfortable.

Jody is more introverted and reticent than most of her friends. This makes her a good listener, a loyal follower and when combined with her activity strengths, she will be able to find a career that suits and builds on these relational tendencies. Unfortunately, our world privileges some personality traits over others -- we think the talkative child is somehow better than the quiet listener, the leader more important than the follower. All children have natural inclinations and ways they feel most comfortable with others. When given the right attention, children can use these traits to have strong, fulfilling relationships. Just by understanding what they are, children can begin to apply these to feel successful. Here is an activity you can do with your child to get her to start thinking about Relationship Strengths:

Have your child choose a famous person, either a real person or a character she "likes" from a story, a television show or a movie. Brainstorm why she "likes" this person. Write down all the reasons you can think of. When all the traits are listed have your child choose which traits she believes are most like her and which are the most different. You may have to make a list of a lot of traits for your younger child to choose from. The list will be ways that people interact with others such as listening, speaking, sharing, caring. Discussions about why they feel comfortable interacting with others is the first step in helping your child reflect on her Relationship Strengths. All children have important contributions to give to others. When you begin to identify the most natural ways your child interacts with others you begin to discover these. A great place to make these observations is when children are involved in free play- time with other children.

Learning Strengths

We all learn in different ways. Each child has a way they learn best. Sometimes lack of success in school is a result of failure to understand a child's learning strengths. Randy and Rebecca are twins. Rebecca is continually frustrated with the fact that she cannot remember where she put her notebook. Her teachers are also frustrated and often ask why she couldn't be more organized like her brother.

Randy is very organized. His mind is sequential and one of his Learning Strengths is his ability to see patterns and place things in logical sequences. This Learning Strength allows him to be organized and do well in a number of areas where his sister does not have a strength. Learning Strengths are the ways we learn that allow to experience optimal learning. Rebecca learns by doing. She is kinesthetic and because of this, she loves art and making things. She enjoys dance and any kind of classroom activity where she can get up out of her seat and move.

When children understand their Learning Strengths, they can be advocates for their own learning. They are able to choose activities where they know they will be successful. For example, if a teacher gave her students the choice between making a short film to demonstrate understanding, or acting out a play, given the little bit we know about Randy and Rebecca, we may say that Rebecca will be more successful doing the acting that allows her move around and Randy, making the film, which allows him the order and sequence.

One way to begin to identify children's Learning Strengths is to give them choices about how they would like to receive information. Does your child like to read a book or listen to it on tape? Show your children both a map and a list of directions. Which one would they choose to use to help them get where they need to go? When you provide children with tasks that have choices for how to master them, take note -- these are clues as to their Learning Strengths.

To get children to begin thinking about strengths in all three categories of strengths parents can:

• encourage children to sit quietly and focus on some deep breaths to still their minds,
• ask questions about preferences and feelings,
• listen closely to the detail children use to talk about their activities and preferences, and
• observe how they respond and interact in a variety of settings.

Their strengths are as various as the children themselves. When we acknowledge children's strengths, we are providing them roadmaps to their greatest opportunity for success along with the ability to glean joy from life. In order to help children discover their strengths, we must take time to truly know them for who they are and use that in support of who they are becoming. When parents do this with their children, everyone wins, and is worthy of a highlight, each in his and her own right.