I will never forget a young man I saw in therapy a few years back. His family history was a nightmare: His parents were alcoholics who’d never really showed much love or interest in him. In their eyes, the boy was a mistake, always a failure. “You shouldn’t have been born,” they told him.
By the time he reached elementary school, this boy had been stripped of his self-esteem, and he hated himself just as much as his parents hated him. He was a lonely and depressed child who didn’t have the courage or self-confidence to make friends, and he often had suicidal thoughts.
It was at this lowest point that something wonderful happened, something that literally saved his life. A teacher recognized his musical ability and encouraged him to sing. This teacher saw what others hadn’t seen: This boy had talent. So she arranged voice lessons, got him into chorus groups and pushed him to sing solos at school and at her church.
As this young man told me about his former teacher, tears streamed down his face. He was so grateful to her for recognizing his musical ability. Music became the central focus of his life, and it gave him the confidence and self-esteem that he’d never had. This young man’s parents had never changed, but their power to destroy him had vanished.
Most kids wonder what they can excel at. And it’s vital they find the answer. They need to discover an area of competence, an ability or a skill that they can be good at. And it’s our job as parents to help them discover it.
Why an area of competence matters
If we fail to uncover our children’s skills, their confidence may suffer and they’ll be much more likely to make mistakes that will cripple their lives.
In my practice, I see many kids who are lazy and unmotivated. They’re not putting forth much effort in school, activities, healthy hobbies or their spiritual lives. They demonstrate an “I don’t care” attitude. The frustrated parents tell me their kids aren’t achieving their full potential.
A root of laziness
It can be painful to hear, but most kids are lazy because they have no area of competence, and therefore no confidence. And it can become a cycle: They’re scared of failure, so they don’t try.
But when a child has a skill, he grows in confidence in himself. This confidence is infectious and will spread to other areas of his life. It will give him the courage to try hard in other areas where he is weak. Perhaps a child’s skills in baseball or science class compel him to try harder in math, and if he doesn’t do as well there, he still is confident because he knows he excels in the other areas. He feeds off that strength, and it gives him the intestinal fortitude — the guts — to give other life experiences his best shot.
A healthy or negative area of competence
Kids who act out or make other terrible decisions often haven’t found an area of healthy competence. If your kid doesn’t find an area of positive competence, I guarantee he’ll find an area of negative competence.
It’ll be easy for him to waste the precious hours of life surfing the internet, playing video games or watching TV. He may find it easy to be good at drinking, drugs, stealing and cheating. Your kid will find something he’s good at, something he can use to draw attention to himself and earn approval from peers.
When children are good in a healthy pursuit, they don’t need to be good at a life-wasting activity. Kids who discover a skill often discover the motivation to work hard, developing protection from temptation and a good understanding of where they can contribute in our world.
‘God made you special’
How do you begin this process? First, start telling your child that she has an ability. The find-a-skill process takes longer with some kids, but it’s important that you never waver in your confidence that there is an area in which she will excel. Don’t say, “Well, Susie, it doesn’t look promising. I’m not sure if you’re good at anything.” No! Here’s what you say: “You’ve got an ability, Susie. I know it. We just have to find it.”
God gives every person talents and gifts. At the point of becoming a Christian, each person also receives a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). We are also given natural human abilities and skills, and it is our responsibility to use these abilities in the service of Christ (1 Peter 4:10-11).
Emphasize these truths to your kids. A child who may express doubts that she has abilities can recognize God’s words affirming that she is specially created for a purpose. It’s not you saying it; this is God talking.
Find your child’s areas of interest and enjoyment, and encourage him to get involved. There are times when it’s necessary to push your kid, and this is one of them. If your child likes something, it just might lead to a skill. I’ll never forget how my cruel, heartless parents pushed me into Little League baseball. I said I liked baseball, so they signed me up.
The nudge toward what they’re good at
On the way to my first practice, I got cold feet and told my mom I’d changed my mind. She said, “You’ll be fine, kiddo.” She stopped our big Vista Cruiser station wagon at the practice field and nudged me out the door. I was left standing there, holding my cap and glove. I didn’t like my mother at that moment, but 10 minutes later, I was having the time of my life. From this, I learned how to play baseball, got to know a lot of guys my age and had a great two years in Little League. All because my parents pushed me.
There are many activities you can push your kid into. Sports are a great path toward many skills. There are school teams and city leagues and all sorts of opportunities in more individual sports such as golf, tennis and martial arts. Or introduce him to a hobby or two: mechanics, woodworking, sewing, computer programming, crafts.
Look for interest in school subjects. Work with teachers and come up with creative ways to encourage your child to learn more about his favorite subject. Then ask him to sample a variety of school extracurricular activities: scouting, music, drama, dance and horseback riding.
Activities explore an area of competence
Every child needs to be involved in an area that interests her. Don’t over-involve her, of course, but help her get involved in at least one area that she enjoys. She must choose something and give it a decent trial, sticking with it for at least a few months to see if things will click. If they don’t, choose another activity and try again. It is completely unacceptable to allow a child to come home from school and do nothing except eat, watch television, spend time on social media and goof off. That is being a slug, and slugs find other slugs to hang out with, and they eventually get into trouble.
My wife, Sandy, and I gave feedback to our kids whenever we saw a skill or a possible skill, but we were pretty low-key about it. We didn’t rave or gush because we didn’t want to apply too much pressure by being too interested in their being good at a particular activity. But as parents, we did push them.
That’s why we pushed Emily in singing, drama and writing, and Leeann in playing the piano and drawing. For Nancy, we encouraged her to develop her skills in organization and tennis, and we pushed Will to practice his talent at golf, tennis and basketball. The competence and character they forged in these activities equipped them with the confidence they needed to face the challenges of life.
The total truth about what they’re good at
A major part of competence is knowing oneself. Your child needs to know who he is — strengths, weaknesses and personality traits — to have confidence and a healthy self-esteem.
To help your child paint this accurate self-portrait, you must consistently give her the truth about herself in all areas. I’ve already covered the importance of feedback concerning skills and abilities. Just be realistic. Don’t lie or exaggerate. If she can’t sing, she can’t sing! I’ve seen parents encourage their child to be a soloist when it’s painfully obvious she doesn’t have the pipes.
So yes, this accurate view of self includes weaknesses. Your child has weaknesses and must learn how to deal with them. Handle these areas very carefully and in private. Say, “That’s not one of your strong points, Bobby.”
Some weaknesses, like in a particular sport, don’t need to be worked on or corrected. Certain things are just not that critical, and you’ll simply direct your child to a sport or activity in which he can enjoy success. Other weak areas, like personality traits, will need to be addressed. Character is important, so you’ll work with your child to help him be aware of, and change, negative aspects of his personality.
Networking for your kid
Connect your child to a community that will help her grow in an area of interest. Have other adults in your child’s life provide feedback on abilities and personal qualities: family members, friends, teachers, coaches, pastors and youth leaders. Ask these people to communicate the positive qualities they observe directly to your child.
I can remember the personal notes my schoolteachers wrote at the end of each grading period. It was the school’s policy, and I’m glad it was. I couldn’t wait to read those notes! I devoured them. My teachers commented on my academic work and my personality. The praise I received for my self-discipline, sense of humor and writing ability helped shape my life.
Encouraging other adults to reinforce your child’s positive qualities adds a powerful dimension to your program of building Christlike character. These people see aspects of your child that you don’t see. In the case of teachers, they may spend more time with your kid than you do.
Also, feedback packs more punch when it comes from someone other than you. Kids, especially teenagers, tend to discount what parents say. Teens think you really don’t know them, that you’re wrong most of the time, and that “Oh, you’re my parent. You’re supposed to say that.” When other adults make comments to teens, they sit up and take notice.