You’re Not Always Going to Win

Many years ago, I worked in an elementary Resource Room with a teaching partner I adored. She was a newlywed, and I was the mom of an elementary student and a toddler at the time. We often talked about marriage and parenting, as we were both navigating uncharted territory. She is now a mom of many, and truly the most highly-skilled parent I have ever met, but nonetheless, she’s feeling her way forward when faced with parenting obstacles, just like the rest of us. 

Recently, she was saying she’s been working with her elementary-aged son on accepting when his slightly younger brother wins or excels in an area that he doesn’t. Defeat is hard, especially when it’s by your own little bro, but accepting we are not exceptional in everything, is a tough lesson of life. She’s been coaching him through understanding and acceptance of this reality, but knowing this will be a journey, not an event. Because Jada and Aiden are 5 years apart and different genders, I’ve never been faced with this parenting conundrum. At the time of our conversation I didn’t have an immediate helpful tip but after thinking for a while about how I would address this, I realized my approach would be exactly the same as how I approach helping my special education students understand what it means to have a disability. It’s time to start a conversation about strengths and weaknesses.

Children need coaching to develop a growth mindset. Sometimes they just expect to be able to excel or achieve at things without realizing the work it takes to accomplish what they desire. Often older siblings expect to do better than their younger siblings at everything, but we all know this is not realistic. One strategy that will help children accept this reality is to have everyone in the home (with the exception of infants) sit down together, each with a large piece of construction paper and something to write with. One one side write,  “______’s Strengths.” Discuss that a strength is something we are good at or something that comes naturally. Depending on the age of the children, you may or may not choose to start by having everyone free-write their strengths independently. Most importantly, brainstorm each individual family member’s strengths together, adding on to each other’s ideas. Use phrases like “Remember when you ______ and when you ______? That shows you are _______.” Exhaust everyone’s ideas, being sure to capture all of the thinking in the room. If children ask why parents have more strengths than they do, be sure to explain you’ve had more years to practice. 

Then flip the page over and write “Weaknesses” on the other side, following the very same steps. Define weaknesses as things you struggle with or you are not very good at. It might be something you have to work very hard to learn to do or something you haven’t done before. Again, you may or may not start with an independent free-write before discussing each individual’s weaknesses as a family. This is a great opportunity for parents to highlight the things they struggle with. It’s important for children to see their parents are not perfect and that parents too have things they are still learning and growing in. This helps develop a growth mindset. I would also add areas that used to be a weakness, but through hard work are no longer weaknesses for you. Write them down and then put a strike through the word to help children visually see how we can reduce our weaknesses through practice.

Once everyone in the family, from ages 2+ has their Strengths & Weaknesses page have a conversation about these key questions:

Is anyone here perfect? Is there such a thing as being perfect? 

Are these strengths and weaknesses permanent? Can they change? How do we change them?

Which weaknesses are important to you?

Is it possible to reach a point where we absolutely have no weaknesses?

Are we all good at the same things? 

Is it possible your sibling can have something on his strength list that you don’t?

How could each of us having different strengths and weaknesses strengthen us as a family?

For the last step, have each person circle 1 (or more) weaknesses they are currently working on improving, and discuss what you are doing to improve in that area. Talk about how unrealistic it is to try to improve all of your weaknesses at the same time (remember, if everything is important, nothing is important), and that some things on the weaknesses side just aren’t significant enough for you to spend the time and energy to improve.

If there are high levels of trust and kindness in the home, you might consider taping each person’s poster to their bedroom walls, strength-side up of course. Everyone needs a visual reminder of what they’re good at so this is a great reinforcement. Remind everyone our strengths and weaknesses are not permanent, so each individual can make changes as we identify new things to add to the lists. 

As for my girlfriend, at the end of this conversation, I would encourage her to ask her son to look at his younger brother’s list of strengths and have him identify something he’s good at, that is not on his own list, and vise versa. Then say “Everyone has strengths in different areas. No one is good at everything.” This is a phrase I would continue to use in future conversations when confronted with this same situation. Just because you taught it once, doesn’t mean it’s going to penetrate, so fully expect to have to revisit this conversation down the road. Using a catch phrase can quickly help reinforce a lesson without needing to rehash the details. Parenting is not a perfect science and I know from experience, just because it worked with Jada, doesn’t mean it’s going to work with Aiden, however making conversations visual and asking questions to expand thinking are universal strategies that will increase communication, comprehension, and ultimately, maturity.