By Julie Burton
In today’s world, so many parents feel the mounting pressure to not only “do it all,” but to be good everything they do. To top it off, doing it all often includes raising kids who also can do it all, and, of course, do it all well.
Thank goodness Mary Reckmeyer’s new book Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents offers an alternate approach for parents to raise happy, confident children who become joyful, fulfilled adults. Reckmeyer, Executive Director of Gallup’s Donald O. Clifton Child Development Center, gives parents permission to let go of the “all” and urges them to focus on discovering and nurturing their child’s innate talents, instead of trying to fix their weaknesses. Strengths Based Parenting suggests that parents need to embark on this journey along with their children in order to gain a better understanding of how to utilize their own strengths in their parenting, and to model this behavior.
Reckmeyer draws the reader in by presenting heartwarming stories about parents who utilized strengths based parenting principles. Take Steve, a boy who did not perform well in school, was bullied by his peers, and had trouble finishing projects that didn’t interest him. As it turns out, Steve had dyslexia that went undiagnosed for years. But Steve’s mother, instead of parenting him by the “deficit model” noticed that he loved photography and making movies. I won’t ruin the surprise and tell the last name of this boy and how he continued to use his strengths to become a very famous man, (it’s in the book), but let’s just say, he has made some of the biggest blockbuster movies of our time.
As a mother of four, ages 21 to 11, I processed Reckmeyer’s anecdotal stories, interviews, research, and advice through the lens of my personal experiences. My son, a college freshman, despised writing all through middle school and his first year of high school. It didn’t come naturally to him, he did not feel successful as a writer, received low marks on his papers, and basically stopped trying to improve. While my husband and I nurtured his strengths (he currently plays college baseball and studies economics and Spanish), I did feel the need to address his issues with writing. With a tremendous amount of effort on my part, met with equal amounts of pushback from him, we worked on strengthening his writing, and he was very happy to become a strong and confident writer by the time he left for college.
While I agree with Reckmeyer’s strengths based approach as one method for parents to utilize in their attempt to help their child thrive, I think there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, how a person expresses them, and how they are interpreted. Chapter Two, “Can Weaknesses be Fixed?” gave me pause as I thought about my experiences with my own children. Over time, my husband and I realized that my son’s issue with writing was not that he was necessarily a weak writer, but his under-par writing stemmed from behavioral issues relating to frustration and defiance, which were blocking him from success.
Laurie Hollman, psychoanalyst and author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence—Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, would most likely say that my husband and I used “parental intelligence” to help our son through these challenges. I only wish I would have read Hollman’s book earlier in my parenting journey, but it is not too late! Thanks to Hollman’s book, my two children who still live at home, and my two children who I parent from afar, will benefit from my clearer understanding of what parental intelligence means, how essential it is for a healthy parent-child relationship, and how to put it into practice.
To help parents like me clearly identify their own and their children’s strengths, Strengths Based Parenting contains two unique access codes (valid for one use only) that can be used to take the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 (for ages 15 and older) and the Clifton Youth StrengthExplorer (ages 10-14) assessments for free (you can also take these on-line assessments without the access codes for a fee). These assessments, originally developed by Reckmeyer’s father, Donald O. Clifton (now deceased), who was known as the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology, are used to identify your and your child’s top “themes of talent” (top five for adults and top three for kids), which you receive in a report of the findings. Reading this book without having taken the assessments (although I do plan to do so and would love my kids to do so as well) was still worthwhile and provided me with some new, exciting, and useful information to add to my parenting toolbox. I was, however, a bit deflated when I realized that pages 89-329 (the end of the book) is the “Clifton StrengthsFinder” section, which contains the definitions, action items, and questions to consider for all 44 themes of talent that are included in the assessment. I found myself skimming through them, trying to figure out which ones sounded like me, my husband, my kids, and grabbing nuggets of helpful information when something resonated with me. Truthfully, I was craving more of Reckmeyer’s stories.
But my biggest take away from both Reckmeyer’s and Hollman’s book is inspiration. Spending the past several years studying motherhood and self-care for a forthcoming book, I believe that both of these approaches are empowering for mothers. While the authors do put the onus on the parents to be thoughtful, engaged, and aware, they provide manageable roadmaps for how to help you and your child be your best self.
Julie Burton is a freelance writer, blogger, co-founder of the Twin Cities Writing Studio, a yoga instructor, and a wife and mother. Her first book, “The Self-Care Solution—A Modern Mother’s Essential Guide to Health and Well-Being,” will be published in May 2016.