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I once worked with a little boy who enjoyed playing alone after a long school day. He’d get lost in a pile of Legos for hours. His teachers reported that he was friendly at school, but his parents were convinced that he lacked social skills. When we shifted from individual to family therapy it became clear that this little boy was not who his parents had dreamed he would be. They assumed that, like his sisters, he would love sports and look forward to soccer and basketball. They thought that he would enjoy play dates after school and running around outside with his neighbors as much as possible. And, they thought they could mold him into that other boy by exposing him to sports and other group activities often.
But here’s the thing: All kids are different and all kids have their own unique strengths. For this little boy, building and creating were huge sources of strength and he was at his most animated when engaged in these activities. When trying to keep up at soccer or basketball practice, however, he struggled. His defense mechanism of choice was silliness, so he became a distraction during these times: funny to the other kids, not so funny to the coaches and parents.
When we enroll kids in activities that run counter to who they truly are, we set them up to fail. We also send a hurtful message: Be this person, not the person you already are. When we tap into our child’s unique strengths and encourage them to find their own passions, we set them on a path toward success and happiness.
How do you find the inner superhero in your own child? Start by following these steps:
1. Understand your child’s personality.
Childhood has become a bit scripted these days. With all of the opportunities available to very young kids, it’s easy to plug them into sports, music, art, and more without considering what really works for the child. Spend time getting to know your child before you get caught in the whirlwind of group activities. Some kids love playing outside and draw energy from groups while others prefer to play quietly with toys and art supplies. Some throw paint everywhere while others prefer to color inside the lines.
2. Listen to your kid — really listen.
Most of us are distracted by 10 different things at once, and we don’t really listen. How often have you caught yourself muttering, “Wow, cool” after your child has told you a story? Our kids tell us stories and give us the play-by-play of their latest experiences because they want to let us into their worlds. They want to share their interests and passions with us. Take the time to get down to your child’s level, ask follow up questions, and repeat back portions of the story to convey that you are listening.
3. Encourage your child’s interests.
The parents of the boy who loved to build saw the light and found a Lego club for him at his school. The club met once a week and the mom reported that he appeared happy and highly social when engaged with his peers in the club. When they encouraged his interests, they helped him find his way. Sure, some kids love sports and music, but others love crafting, sewing, cooking, and coin collecting. Kids don’t need enrichment programs to build social skills; they need time to explore their interests in a meaningful way. Ask your child what makes her happy and encourage her to carve her own path to success.
4. Play with your kid.
I know: Sometimes you don’t feel like it, but try to accept those invitations to play. By inviting you to join them, they’re indicating that they trust you, they want to bond with you, and they want to show you what makes them tick. The single best way to help your child find his inner strengths is to spend time playing together. You can plan all the family adventures you want, but nothing beats the power of unstructured play.