Strengths and Parenting

Here’s a cool thing - strengths work isn’t just for work (although it’s pretty great for that), it also applies to everyday life. I often am asked by clients if the tools they learn in our strengths coaching workshops could apply to their spouses and even their children. YES! Remember, there is no work vs. life. It’s all your life. Having an awareness of your gifts and the gifts of those around you makes life so much better.

Let me tell you a story about strengths at my house. Some of you may know that I married a man some years back who came with two girls. My bonus family! It was both super exciting and scary, and those of you in the step-mom club know that it can be fraught with peril. So I set about trying to figure them out because strengths are my thing and I wanted my new family to also be my thing. The older one, whom I’ll call Big, was easy for me to understand. Even though her strengths are quite different from mine (she’s got a wildly strong Includer gift), I pretty quickly understood what made her tick. I knew how she was going to react to things, what foods she would find tasty or not, what activities she’d like, and how she would experience new situations. But then there was the younger one, Little. Little was a complete enigma. She didn’t say much. She wouldn’t respond to my questions. She didn’t seem to have a point of view and was incapable of making a decision when asked. She also seemed frustrated. A lot. All I could figure out is that when she finally did say something to me, it was to ask a strange question. I also thought she hated my cooking (and if you know me you know that I’m a pretty good cook - #thanksmom). Then I started to wonder if she just hated me. Oh no – the awful step-mom trope was coming true! Eek.

I leaned into my Learner talent and decided to figure this out once and for all. I had the whole family do the Gallup Clifton Strengths assessment. I’m well aware that this was a total nerd move, but that’s how I roll (btw, I also believe in eating dinner together and no tech at the table). The results were fascinating. Y’all, I do this for a living and yet was blown away by the insights. I can’t over emphasize how powerful this was for me and how humbling it was to realize how much I was messing up the parenting thing. You see, Little came back with a strength that I would have never put my finger on, or at least it would have taken much longer for me to figure out: discipline. I laughed out loud when I saw discipline. Absolutely not, I thought! At the time she was a contender for a stint on the TV show Hoarders and would happily walk out of the house missing shoes or pants, and with 10 stuffed animals in messy tow. Discipline is all about structure, order, organization, and precision. I had to really slow down and understand how discipline was showing up for her. Once I stopped talking and started listening, I started to see that her discipline showed up in ways like this: incessant questions and an explanation for every scrap of paper or bit of thing that she was “hoarding”. This might sound familiar to parents, but her questions were along the order of, “what time should I get up”, “are you going to wake me up”, “what should I wear”, “what time is breakfast”, “what are we having for breakfast”, “how long is breakfast going to take”, “what is happening after that”, “are we going anywhere”, “how long will it take to get there”, “what should I wear”, “how long are we going to stay there”, and on and on and on. It was maddening. I allowed myself to just get irritated and would respond in a flip or snappy way, to which she would just get quiet and shut down. I then started reading judgment into her questions – such as, well she must not be happy with what I made for breakfast which is why she’s so preoccupied with it a day in advance. Argh. Completely not helpful and supremely frustrating to us both. But then I started to see it. She wasn’t asking 50 billion questions so that I was mom-shamed, she was asking so that she could structure her day. She hated being in the dark about what was happening and when. She wasn’t a “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of gal. In fact, spontaneity and quick decision making filled her with angst. She needed to know the rules and guardrails so that she could function well within them. A key is found within the Gallup definition of discipline: “faced with the inherent messiness of life, you want to feel in control”. With the change inherent in a new blended family, she had been feeling decidedly not in control.


And get this, to her the practice of keeping every bit and bob she came across wasn’t just being messy. Rather, when asked, she would have a super creative reason and story behind why she kept the wrapper from the straw or twisty tie from the bread bag. To her it wasn’t a mess at all! It was to make a hat for a doll, or hold her Shopkins (tiny little dolls designed to drive parents insane), or serve some other useful purpose. The room that looked like a trash heap in my eyes was a room full of creative potential in hers and she knew exactly where everything was. It was perfectly ordered and precise to her.


That really was an epiphany moment for me, and marked a turning point in our relationship. Now that I know she has a need for structure (way higher than mine), I can work with her on mapping out a plan for the day. She loves a to-do list, so I’ll have her make one for the weekend and then she’ll happily go about getting it done. And if plans change, I try to give her as much notice as possible. Regarding the messy room, we came to an understanding of “you can’t put 10 pounds of sugar in a 5-pound bag”, and how to have a discerning eye on how much stuff can fit in the space. She’s also gotten really good at going through her things and recognizing when she’s moved on from a particular interest so we can pass those things along to someone else (ie, Shopkins).


It’s my job to raise productive human beings and parents with multiple children know you can’t parent every child the same. That doesn’t mean success equals clones of me. That really does mean understanding their unique gifts and how those can best contribute to a positive society. It’s our role to help our children blossom. Your child’s gifts may be hiding under layers of immaturity (after all, their frontal lobes are still developing), but it’s your job as a parent to help them uncover and hone those gifts. 


Regarding tools for figuring this out, the regular Gallup Clifton Strengths assessment is a good one for adults. Gallup also has a version for older high school/college students called Strengths Quest, and a version for kids down to about 10 years old called Strengths Explorer. It’s basically the same powerful backend of magic algorithms but the front end is written in age-appropriate language. You can find more about those assessments at Gallup’s website:


Another tool that I’m super excited about is the launch of the book “Play to Their Strengths”, by my friends Brandon and Analyn Miller. They have perfectly captured the importance of getting to really know your children and their gifts, and then adapting your parenting style to their needs. Now, that doesn’t mean creating a generation of coddled snowflakes. Rather, it is a way to instill awareness, understanding and appreciation so that, say it with me, life is so much better.


Here’s a secret though – you don’t need a fancy assessment to start figuring this stuff out. There are clues to talent that you can tap into by just focusing your attention. Brandon and Analyn have a method called the “5 E’s of Strength Identification” which help you identify potential gifts through your child’s enthusiasm, ease, excellence, energy and enjoyment. You can find explanations of this technique, and others, in their book which just dropped on June 3.

I definitely don’t want you to think I have this parenting thing all figured out, but I strive to be better and more aware each day. These tools help us meet our kids where they are. Isn’t it great that you and your child don’t have to wait until she’s 35 to learn who she is?

#playtotheirstrengths #gallupstrengths #cliftonstrengths