Little yellow papers were piled on my desk. They were essays written by students applying to lead their class in student council. The essays were sweet and hopeful. In their essays students shared all about themselves One wrote about earning their black belt in karate, another about helping their sister at home, and one strategic applicant told all about how much she loved Minnesota (a girl after my own heart). Their next step was interviewing with me. The interviews were short, I only had two questions prepared; what are you good at and what is one thing you would like to change about our school?
One by one our students filtered through my office. Some were excited and confident. Others arrived anxious and shy. Most were a combination of the two. What struck me in these conversations was the surprise on so many of our student’s faces when I asked, “What are you good at?” I had anticipated excited conversations. I thought this question would spark joy in their eyes and bubble over into happy chatter. The responses varied.
One student looked out the window and sighed, “I am really good at reading.” I urged her to tell me more. “I like sad books… just because, well, they make me feel things and I like that. They make me think. Yeah, I am a pretty good reader.”
Another looked at me, then out the window until settling on her answer, “I am not really good at anything.” I pointed out I noticed her help a friend with a coat in the hallway earlier that week, she reluctantly agreed she was good at helping others.
Student after student looked at me blankly when I asked, “What are you good at?” Most didn’t have one answer. I tried to lead, “I’ve seen you play tag, you are really fast… you were reading that chapter book Crispin, you are definitely a reader”. More than one student’s eyes welled with tears, thinking about one good thing about themselves was that difficult.
Hadn’t our children been told they are creative thinkers, vivid dreamers, brilliant problem solvers? I had seen them do all of these things and more. Why didn’t they know this in their hearts? The answer, I fear, is that we adults haven’t spoken loudly enough about these beautiful gifts our children have. We are good at offering praise. A simple, “nice job!” or “looks great!” What our kids really need to hear us say goes beyond the generic praise. They need to hear the specifics. We need to say, “You are a good friend, you helped pick up books even though you missed a few minutes of your free time.” They need to hear, “you know, you just tried three times until you made that basket, you are persistent. That is admirable!” Our children deserve an adult giving them clear feedback on what they are good at. They need us to tell them their strengths and why those strengths are important.
Since that afternoon in my office I made a goal that children I work with will hear one strength they have each time I work with them. I tell them I noticed them holding a door open for a friend and the glimmer in their eye when they figure out a difficult math problem. I told the leaders on student council, “You came today with so many ideas. You are leaders because leaders think about things that are happening and find ways they can help make it better.” Children need to frequently hear positive messages about themselves as a person. We can help them internalize their goodness and strengths through our language.
Today think of a child in your life. What are they good at? Make sure you tell them many times so it becomes part of them. Next year when a new group of student leaders apply for student council I am going to make sure they can tell me what they are good at with conviction. It is our job to hold children up so they can build bright futures for all of us.