One of the phrases parents get most often from their kids is some variation of “watch this” — Whether they want to showcase somersault skills, exhibit their artwork, or dance to the latest Kidz Bop banger, children desire acknowledgment and positive feedback.
Adults are typically willing participants in the positive feedback loop, complimenting kids for their efforts even if they must get creative to avoid lying through their teeth. As a result, little kids tend to think they’re good at everything, which is perfectly fine for where they’re at in the developmental process. But it leaves some parents wondering how and when to foster the self-awareness that will eventually lead to kids understanding their strengths and weaknesses.
“For most kids, it’s a gradual process,” says psychologist, researcher, and author Ellen Braaten, Ph.D. Although kids learn these skills over time, Braaten says that it’s not until early adolescence that they have the cognitive and emotional maturity needed for self-awareness of what they’re good at. But there are some strategies parents can keep in mind when their kids are younger to lay the groundwork for healthy self-awareness as kids age.
1. Focus On What Kids Enjoy
It’s normal for parents to use specific autopilot phrases in response to things their kids say frequently. And “Good job” or “nice” tend to be popular choices when kids display a trick they learned or creation they made. Affirmation is undoubtedly preferable to the cold, hard truth that the dog they drew looks more like a jackalope. Still, this results-centric way of framing isn’t ideal for helping kids develop self-awareness.
“Younger kids tend to talk like they’re good at everything. But what they’re not understanding is that when they say they’re good at something, they are really trying to communicate that they got pleasure or enjoyment from the activity,” Braaten says.
“I love how much you enjoy singing” or “You worked hard on that picture” are preferable responses in that they highlight the process of participating in an activity over how the activity turned out. Those responses lay the groundwork for a mindset of fulfillment over achievement and can encourage kids to stick with something they’re passionate about, even if it’s difficult or they’re not good at it right away.
When [little kids] say they’re good at something, they are really trying to communicate that they got pleasure or enjoyment from the activity.
“We want kids to link their enjoyment of an activity to the activity itself instead of having a voice in their head that says ‘I’m good at this’ or ‘I’m not good at this,’ because they may find joy in something a bit difficult for them, and we want to reinforce their persistence,” she says.
In Braaten’s mind, someone capable of well-rounded self-appraisal doesn’t only know what they’re good at, but they can also say, “I’m not good at this, but I want to do it anyway.” Parents may be well-intentioned in encouraging kids to pursue activities that they’re good at because they want their children to experience success. Still, there’s value in letting them play a sport they aren’t good at simply because it’s fun.
2. Affirm When Kids Demonstrate Positive Character Traits
Strengths aren’t limited to hard skills and abilities, but include virtues and character traits. Kids are less likely to be able to identify the latter, so it’s up to parents to remain perceptive to and reinforce instances when kids exhibit positive values.
Although some people are naturally inclined toward certain character traits, Braaten points out that kids constantly try different ways of interacting with others. Opening them up to the idea that they’re capable of a wide range of character traits is especially important when young and malleable, as strengths become more immutable as people age.
“It’s essential for kids, especially those who don’t excel in sports and academics, to develop an attunement to character strengths,” she says. “And as adults, we need to develop language that goes beyond blanket statements about kids and focuses more on reflecting how we see them apply those traits.”
It never hurts to tell a kid that you appreciate how kind and loving they are. But pointing out how they helped a grandparent grab something out of reach or showed kindness to a family pet by refilling their water without being asked to provides significant impact because it demonstrates a template for what kindness actually looks like.
3. Don’t Get Too Caught Up In Your Desires For Your Kid
Say your Kindergartener is the best soccer player in their grade. So you get them on solid teams, shell out money for camps, and shuttle them to tournaments every weekend. Your efforts pay off as your kid continues to improve. You start to dream about them tearing it up in high school and maybe even getting a scholarship to play in college. Most of the time, you have the good sense to keep yourself from daydreaming that they’ll go pro. But not always.
And then they decide they hate soccer.
“That’s where it can get hard for kids,” says Braaten. “Sometimes the things that they’re good at can be a burden. So you want to make sure that you’re accurately reflecting what you’re seeing in them, but that your reflection is more about what satisfies your child instead of what gives you pleasure and affirms your own desires for them to be good at something.”
The challenge for parents in those situations is to hear out their kids without asking questions that pressure them, even if that pressure is unintentional. “You’re good at violin but don’t seem to love it. Tell me more about that,” is a better approach than “Why don’t you want to play violin? You’re so good at it!”
“As parents, we can’t push our unfulfilled dreams and desires onto our kids. They need validation of how it feels to be good at something but not necessarily love it so they don’t feel like they’re letting the adults down,” Braaten says. “Keying in on affirming kids when you see them in activities that give them pleasure is where our focus should remain.”
4. Ask Appropriately Timed Open-Ended Questions
The fact is that parents don’t actually see a lot of the activities their kids participate in once they start going to school. Trying to get information out of them about what they enjoyed most about their school day without getting answers other than lunch and recess can feel like an impossible task.
Braaten has found that with younger kids, asking more indirect questions provides parents better insights from which they can extrapolate what their kids did that day, what they enjoyed doing, and what they were successful at.
“Especially with elementary school kids, it can be nice to ask open-ended questions about what’s going on for everybody else in the classroom, as opposed to what they did individually,” she says. “I like open-ended questions such as: What did the class do today? Or was there anybody in the class that you wished you could do the sorts of things that they were doing today?”
And the immediate post-school rundown may not be effective in learning what makes your kid tick. In the same way adults don’t always want to talk about work the moment they walk in the door, kids may need time to decompress and shift into a different gear for a bit. But parents can still find ways to engage kids in a reflective process that helps give both of them an idea about what kids enjoyed about their day and what they felt they did well.
“One thing parents can do is start a tradition where after everyone has had a chance to regroup, they all tell one thing about their day that made them happy or one thing they’re grateful for,” Braaten says. “It can open up a door and start a bigger conversation, and is a great way of getting in touch with your kids’ strengths.”