The Power of Strengths and Weaknesses: Giving Kids Permission to Just Be

Photo Courtesy of Danny Brown

The old man pointed to a baker standing in his shop window at one corner of the plaza. “When he was a child, that man wanted to travel, too. But he decided first to buy his bakery  and put some money aside. When he is an old man, he’s going to spend a month in Africa. He never realized that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”

“He should have decided to become a shepherd,” the boy said.

“Well, he thought about that,” the old man said. “But bakers are more important people than shepherds.”…

“In the long run, what people think about shepherds and bakers becomes more important for them than their own Personal Legends.”

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho


A New York Times article, “Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary” has been on the list of the most e-mailed articles for some time now. This topic fits with the theme of the last few weeks on this blog, so I thought I would explore this issue further.

The article discusses the tendency, at least in the United States, for people to push their children to excel at all levels, filling their time with activities and events which provide further opportunities to compete with their peers.

I am sure many of you read about a commencement speech earlier this year where the speaker told the students that they were not exceptional. The reactions to this speech were heated.

But perhaps the speaker was just trying to give the students permission to find value and define success differently than their parents and society prescribe. Perhaps the speaker was trying to help students understand that it is OK to have both strengths and weaknesses.

The constant drive to compete is positive in many ways. It can lead to innovation and progress.But at what price? Where is creativity encouraged?

What about the artist who is not strong at math or writing, but can compose a symphony or paint a beautiful landscape? Where is the encouragement for this type of success?

Where is the recognition of people who may not be academics, but build and maintain personal relationships better than most?

Part of the stress many of us feel, where people run themselves ragged at all times and fail to disconnect from work, even when on vacation, seems to come from this drive. People think, “If I don’t stay connected, will people think that I am not a hard worker? Will I appear to lack ambition?”

What are we teaching our children with these messages? Are we teaching our children to develop the same neuroses that we have developed, where the prioritization of work over relationships is sorely misaligned?

This problem has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. It is striking to me, how every speech by a major politician is peppered with statements that the United States is the best country in the world.

There are many areas where the United States excels and there are also areas, like healthcare, where the United States has much to learn from the rest of the world. The US has strengths and weaknesses, just like any person or child. And is there really anything wrong with that?

What do you think? What do you think accounts for people’s relentless drive to be the best and to push their children to be the best? Have you dealt with these pressures as a parent or an employee? Do you have any tips for others who would like to readjust their priorities and goals? Do you feel that this drive alienates potential teammates in a workplace or a social environment? Why do you think this issue has gotten so much attention lately? Do you think the intensity of the pressures have increased recently? And if so, why do you think that is?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Thank you for reading.



Filed under Books, Business, Career Planning, Culture, Economy, Education, Health, International, Parenting, Peace, Relationships, social pressures, Stereotypes, Technology, travel, Women, Youth Leadership

48 responses to “The Power of Strengths and Weaknesses: Giving Kids Permission to Just Be

  1. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it as long as we recognize our weaknesses and try to strengthen them. I have a real problem with the “I’m OK, you’re OK” notion that was so popular not long ago. Not all people are OK and some of the things that OK people do they shouldn’t do. We must not be afraid to modify our behavior if it is tending in the wrong direction. As Hannah Arendt said long ago after a careful study of the Nazis, we should not hesitate to be “judgmental.” If the Germans in the 20s and 30s had been more judgmental, Hitler never would have risen to power. (You might have guessed: I have blogged about this!) Thanks for the thought-provoking blog, as usual.

    • Good point, although I have some weaknesses that I don’t feel too inspired to work on. I am not great at math or at drawing, but it seems like the effort it would take to make me better at these things is not worth it at this point. I prefer to focus on my strengths and participating in activities and work that take advantage of these rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole with activities that others could do so much better than I could.

      I just don’t think every person has to be President or CEO of something – it takes all kinds of people to create a successful team! 🙂 Thanks for your thoughtful comment, as always!

      • I think I misunderstood what you meant by “weaknesses.” I took you to mean “character weaknesses.” You seem to be talking about things we don’t do well. I don’t have any problems with that. I also try to develop my strengths… both of them. 🙂

        • Excellent clarification, Hugh. I have much less patience for character weaknesses! Sounds like you do as well. 🙂 Maybe one of my weaknesses is making sure to connect the dots in my posts! Oh well, we can’t all be perfect, now can we?

  2. Wow, you surely make me think. As a parent, I have come to the realization I want my kids healthy, happy and self-sufficient. I changed the order a couple of times, but I think if they are healthy, they are off to a great start. And, by happy I mean doing something that brings them joy. I know we cannot be happy at all times, but if we do things we enjoy, then that is fulfilling. The self-sufficiency part does not mean they have to be in a highly professional job or a great inventor. I want them to be able to take care of themselves and their families. My wife had two of three pregnancies where an issue arose – unusual to us, but not unheard of to the doctors. When the two came out healthy, as did our first born, that is truly all that mattered. So, to answer your question, so what if they are not president of the US. As long as they do their best and treat others like they want to be treated, I am good.

    • I think tomorrow I am writing about pie, so we will all have a mental break in this neck of the woods! 😉

      That sounds like a wise and practical strategy. And you sound like a great Dad and husband! Thanks for your comment. Enjoy your 4th!

  3. This is such an intense topic. I have 3 children and I have felt the pressure as a parent to push my kids on every level. My philosophy as a parent was to give my kids just enough latitude to find out who they are outside the prescribed box we are all lured into. Now, that I’m a bit older and wiser, I’m not sure if I made the right decision or not. All 3 of my kids are/were average students. I think that it affected the way they see themselves. Despite our attempts to drive home the point, “Try your hardest and do your best … that’s all that counts” … that never really cut it when they’re sitting next to Sallie and Johnnie who is getting straight A’s every day. It’s a tough day. Where is the line? We all want to drive ourselves to be better because it gives us a sense of satisfaction and purpose and in the end, probably gets us the better job. But, we also have to accept that for some, best may (in this culture’s judgment) simply be average. I don’t know. I may only speak this way because I can only speak from my own experience. In the end, I think what’s most important is to become the best human being we can be and hopefully we can learn to push ourselves in that area. Our careers are great, but they’ll eventually end. Our abilities in what we do are awesome, but eventually we all get old and slow down. What lasts is what we have become as people and maybe that’s something that needs a little more emphasis. That’s just my 2 cents. 😀

    • I love that. You are exactly right about what lasts and the need to put emphasis on that. We don’t have any children, but I can only imagine how hard it would be to figure out the right balance of praise, acceptance and nudging. Thanks so much reading and for your comment!

  4. As a teacher I have noticed over the years how students have slowly become “praise junkies” and if I don’t exclaim how wonderful they are, how magnificient their work is, etc. they will do so for themselves. This is either extreme confidence, a total disconnect with reality, or blatant addiciton to needing a kudo to get through the day. It really bugs me. I will certainly praise them when appropriate, yet for some reason it doesn’t seem to be enough. Is this because we have raised this batch on “Good job! Everyone gets an award for just showing up! Yay!!! Everyone is special!!” The problem is society recognizes not everyone is special and what a letdown these kids will get when they hit the job market.

    • Thanks for your comment. I know other teachers can probably relate. But I wonder why this type of thinking has become so prevalent. I am 40 and don’t think that my generation suffered from this quite as much. We certainly felt the drive to succeed and compete, but I don’t think we expected praise if we hadn’t done something praise-worthy. Thanks for helping think through this!

      • Maybe it’s the generation who had to work for the praise and honors thought, “Hmm, my kids should skip the work part and just enjoy the good feeling of praise and glory.” I dunno. Getting handed something for nothing seems to lose it in the translation. Great topic!

    • Ours is an age of entitlement and kids are told from day one that they are terrific. It’s the “self-esteem” theory: tell them they are great and they will grow up believing it. In fact, what they grow up realizing is that it was a crock and they were lied to. Your approach is the correct one, I believe. They are bright enough to know when praise is deserved and when it is a lie.

      • This is so interesting to me. Maybe because I was not brought up that way and I don’t have kids, so the whole concept is pretty foreign to me. Again, I can imagine the challenges of finding a balance as a parent, but I can also imagine a rude awakening as a child if you are not aware that life can be challenging and you will not always win.

      • Well, maybe down the road they will see it. Right now they want the stars, stickers, and extra credit for walking through the door. Thanks for the reply.

  5. OMG! This post so resonates with me! We tell our children to go to school for high-paying potential. The sad part is if they are not passionate about it and succeed in getting careers to match their degrees I fear they will work themselves to an early grave and be unhappy all the way there! Find something you’re passionate about and then excel at it! Success is bigger than earning power.

    • Yay! I’m so glad this resonated with you! That does seem to be the big question. There must be a middle somewhere, don’t you think? Thanks for the comment!!

      • absolutely, when you love something and are driven to it, people gravitate toward you and want to work with you to achieve it. Thanks for writing it. 🙂

      • It’s so difficult to instill passion into students in the last couple of years. Having developed technology to the point of ease has created a deficit of try. It’s bizarre to me to see students running around with $300 electronics (i-pads, i-phones, etc) around school. They get instant gratification at their fingertips. Again, my point is getting students to developing caring and drive (passion) into students is a challenge. I see some students pressured to compete to the point of being absolute stressed; on the other hand, there are students who absolutely are content with cashiering at Wal-Mart. Finding the balance…how to do that?

        • I hope you never give up! It’s people like you who make it work in spite of the fact that you must run uphill into the wind most of the time.

          • I’m with Hugh on this. Keep up the important work, even if at times it feels thankless. It seems that what we need to instill in kids is a sense of curiosity for what is out there to learn. If someone is using their technology to look up the history of the development of plane, or whatever they might be interested in, that seems like it should be OK. But how do we instill the curiosity? I remember a few teachers whose unconventional approaches really stuck with me. One was my biology teacher who planted a chicken bone in a shark that we were dissecting and made us think it had been digested by the shark. It was a great way to explain how that would be impossible for it still to be so fully formed after so much time. Another teacher made us take a story from the news to every class and he would randomly call on someone to read their story and tell why they had chosen it. I am sure it is hard to keep kids engaged, but it sounds like you are doing a great job!

          • Uphill in the wind–I like that. At least I will always have a fresh breeze in my path 🙂

  6. Another great topic! I will probably always push my children to strive to do better. It’s how I was brought up (strict Asian parents), and I think it’s a good thing. It’s my hope that I can do this lovingly, but in the end, I want my kids to be good, successful and contributing members of society. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to be “ok” with their average work.

    Something in your post resonated with me, and that is when you talked about overscheduling and constantly packing activities in one day for children. While I believe in making children work hard, it has to be age appropriate. Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to over structure young children. I know that it’s kind of the trend to enroll toddlers in baby mathematics and parents stress out when their kids aren’t reading at age 3. I am not in that camp. The most important thing young kids can do is to play. I’m not talking video games either. That play time is so important developmentally. Their minds are learning concepts of creativity, physics and math (albeit not in the same manner in academia).

    I think Cricketmuse’s comment about lots of kids being praise junkies is dead on. I say it a lot myself to my kids. Then I read about a book about the cons of doing this too much. All of a sudden, kids get complacent and they tend to shy away from hard things and go for the easy just to get that star or sticker. Now, I try to say things like “I liked how you tried your best there. Can you try a little harder to do it this way?” Or instead of saying “Good job drawing that picture!” I might say “Tell me about what you drew.”

    Sorry, I rambled on. 🙂

  7. Literary Tiger is right about the over scheduling in my view. Many moons ago, I coached little league baseball. I would see kids doing three things at once after school – let’s say baseball, soccer and Odyssey of the Mind, e.g. The children go from event to event limiting their enjoyment and success and have little time to be a kid. Plus, other downsides are the stress on the parents and the fewer opportunities to eat together as a family. This latter issue is a major point, as families flourish more the greater number of times they sit down together to eat.

    • That makes sense to me too. It seems to just perpetuate the problems we have pointed out where all of us run from thing to thing and never find time to stp and reflect. Thanks for reading!!

  8. Deb Weyrich-Cody

    Action and reaction, good and evil, night and day, up and down, left and right – balance, balance and more balance – we are all individuals, we all have our strengths and weaknesses; so why should we expect to excel at everything we touch?
    Variety is the spice of life ~ All things in moderation ~ Do unto others as you would have them do unto you… These are the kinds of things we should teach our children to ensure they can think for themselves and make good decisions.
    Do good marks guarantee success? Wouldn’t that depend on how you measure success?

    • Absolutely. Very insightful comment. We need more people to think like this and to help their kids take pride in, and build upon, their strengths and to never shy away from opportunities for growth. Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughtful comment.

      • Deb Weyrich-Cody

        Thank you for making me think.
        Only time will tell whether our parenting strategies were truly successful (intent and actuality are not always that predictable; )

  9. Well, considering that you need to enroll your child in kindergarden as soon as conceived, I’d say that indeed, we are fostering an overachiever culture, some of us reluctantly.
    I read the commencement speech you’re talking about and I’m still not entirely sure I agree, because I, for one, believe that everyone is special in their own way, even if we can’t all excel or succeed.
    Anyway, just to put the whole overachieving point in perspective, last week an advertising agency came to my daughter’s ballet studio because they needed 5-10 year-old girls for a TV spot. I let my daughter try the part quickly because we couldn’t stay and so she was the first one in and out, but you should’ve seen the other parents: “learn it right so you’ll get the part”; “be enthusiastic so they’ll choose you”; “remember the words or you won’t get the part”. And it goes on and on. It’s ok to want the best for your child, but where does it all stop?

    • That is amazing. Yes, you are right about the culture forcing us to be overachievers…and about all of us being special in our own way. I think that is what is missing in some ways – the “in our own way” statement. So there is a lack of understanding that we are all special in different ways and a feeling that we have to be perfect in all ways! Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

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