My wife Carol and I did not know if we were ever going to be parents. Eight years into our marriage, we had long since borne the official label, infertile. When the day finally came to deliver twins by C-section, I was warned to get some breakfast. “We will have two of everyone in the delivery room. We don’t need you to make things interesting by passing out.”
Two mostly red, scrunchy-looking, beautiful baby boys emerged. The birth announcement was funny (to us anyway), with the image of the Macaulay Culkin open-mouthed, hands-on-cheeks scream, announcing that we were no longer Home Alone. Inside, the announcement expressed both the pain of infertility and the joy of having our first kids: “You have turned our mourning into dancing” (see Ps. 30:11). We felt the same way four years later when our twin girls were born.
One of the greatest gifts parents can give a child is to maintain the sense of wonder they feel at that child’s birth. Parents do their job best (and enjoy it most) when they consider themselves explorers, seeking to discover and affirm the unique person God designed each child to be. When a parent treats a child’s unique design as a wonder, that child grows in both emotional and spiritual health.
In the crush of everyday life, however, many of us fall into deficit parenting. In other words, we focus on shortcomings and weaknesses. Rather than helping our children develop their God-given strengths, we push them to get better in areas outside their gifts. It makes sense to ask our kids to become competent in all functional areas of life, but it goes against God’s design to push them to excel where they are not gifted. Driving our kids in this way can make them feel inadequate rather than affirmed.
If God, the Creator, is the author of all strengths, we need to be discovering and encouraging those strengths in the context of our homes, beginning when our children are very young. And we need to be giving God the credit. He is the one, after all, who assigns different members of the body their particular gifts (and loves watching us use them!).
Even when their children are at the youngest ages, parents can notice and affirm natural talents. This is co-shaping with God. Appreciation for the expression of a child’s interests and gifts helps build confidence and a better relationship between parent and child. Talking about God-given gifts throughout childhood prepares a child to begin discerning his or her vocational direction.
It might be difficult to talk like this to your child at first, especially if your parents didn’t offer much by way of verbal affirmation. Noticing what others do well and affirming them for it is like using a muscle. It may take a while to get conditioned if you have not been using that muscle much. No matter how awkward you feel at first, do not back off or give up on the habit of affirming your kid’s strengths. Make yourself accountable with another mom or dad. We meet too many kids on college campuses who arrive starved for the affirmation and approval of their parents.
As kids approach their teen years, strengths-based approaches are available to help them gain greater clarity as to how God has designed them. Such approaches can help both parent and child to be on the lookout for particular expressions of how God uniquely made each of them. This knowledge not only serves as affirmation and a guide to the child, it helps the parent avoid the trap of trying to mold the child into his or her image. Knowing our child’s gifts helps us rediscover the wonder we felt at his or her birth.
You might be skeptical about this approach and asking, “Isn’t it part of my job as a parent to teach my kids accountability — that they have to live up to their responsibilities even if that means struggling through things for which they do not have a natural talent?”
Yes, your kids do need to learn how to do what they are expected to do, whether or not it comes easily. As parents, we guide them to answer this question: “Given who you are, how are you going to get this done?” The assumption is that the child will work that math problem to completion, finish that English paper, or learn that song. Repeatedly letting your kids off the hook is bad for their development. Part of our work is to help them figure out how to fulfill their responsibilities given who they are. Teaching children responsibility need not conflict with affirming their unique design.
Dan Dupee is the former Chairman of the Board for the Coalition for Christian Outreach, a Pittsburgh-based campus ministry working annually with over 32,000 students on over 115 campuses. He brings together biblical truth, sociological research, college transition findings, and focus group work with parents of adolescents to develop principles that are fresh, clarifying additions to a growing body of research on teen faith development. Dan and his wife, Carol, are the parents of four children. They live in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. More information about his book “It’s Not Too Late” can be found online here.