There is a comical story about the first Jewish President of the United States who calls his mother and invites her over for Passover. Characteristically, his mother immediately begins complaining.
“Oye, I’ll need to book a flight and it’s going to cost so much – it is just too much of a bother.”
“Mom, I’m the President, I’ll send a private jet for you.
“Oye, I’ll need to catch a taxi and carry my luggage. It’s just too much!”
“Mom, I’m the President, I’ll pick you up in my limo.
“Oye, I’ll need to book a hotel.”
“Mom, I’m the President, you can stay at the White House.”
“Okay, fine,” she finally agrees.
A few minutes later her friend Roberta calls.
“So, Miriam, what’s new?”
“Oye, I’m going to my son for Passover.”
“Who, the doctor?”
“No, the other one.”
Parenting all our future presidents is a lot of fun and a big responsibility. Researchers have found that people who have children generally find more meaning over their lifespan than people who do not have children. This is codified by the biblical command: “Then God blessed Adam and Eve and said: Be Fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Even if you are unable to give birth, a couple is still expected to create a family, as the Talmud teaches, “Whoever brings up an orphan in his home is regarded by the Bible as though the child had been born to him.” However, this is only the first step in parenting. Even more important than having a child is raising and knowing that a child’s experience of their parents shapes their worldview more than any other relationship.
2000 years ago, the Jewish sages claimed that a “parent must teach their child to swim.” Some sages interpret this to mean that a parent must teach a child to survive and to be responsible for themselves. The pathway to “teaching a child to swim” in the 21st Century is raising them according to the Attributes of Positive Judaism. This will enable them to uncover and to develop their signature strengths and to swim their way to wellbeing and happiness in their lives.
Develop Your Child’s Signature Strengths
When my children were younger, I spent a lot of time with them at playgrounds and in parks. I loved watching them run, play, negotiate, climb, swing, and get dirty, and I learned a lot about my own parenting style by watching other parents attend to their children. I remember one mother who had constant immediate praise for her daughter about everything she did. “Becca, your rock pile is amazing! Wow, your slide down was amazing! Honey, that jump was amazing! Darling, your hold on the monkey bars was amazing!” I admired her enthusiasm and ‘praise parenting’ does have value, but I’m talking about a different approach to positive parenting: strengths-based parenting.
Every parent I know wants their child to be happy, healthy, and successful in their lives. We want our children to “be a mensch” (a good person) and to have a positive impact in the world. Some children evolve into thriving adults while others become difficult and live unfulfilled lives. Many factors lead to this difference, but one of the most essential tools parents can give to their child is to help them to identify and to develop their signature strengths over the course of their lives.
Jewish tradition teaches that “a parent must teach their child Torah.” On one level, this means to teach a child the stories of tradition that come from the Five Books of Moses. On another level, this means that a parent must teach their child’s “Torah” and guide their child to identify, understand, and develop her strengths.
Parenting expert Dr. Lea Waters, defines strengths as “positive qualities that energize us and that we use often in productive ways to achieve our goals. They are developed over time and are recognized by others as praiseworthy.” Strengths-based parenting focuses on a child’s character strengths (ie, optimism, bravery, creativity, gratitude, appreciation, kindness, resilience, hope, etc.), rather than their accomplishments or their incremental weaknesses. The method works like this:
- “Honey, I can see how much creativity you brought to this art project,” rather than, “This art project is amazing!”
- “I can imagine it was hard not throw that insult/ball/rock/back at him which took a lot of restraint and courage,” rather than, “I know he was being a jerk. Kids are jerks sometimes.”
- “Jennifer, you accomplished so much by getting a 94 on your math exam – well done.” Rather than, “what happened with that one you got wrong? You could have gotten a perfect score if you used that method we practiced last night.”
Rather than focus on weaknesses and external factors, strengths-based parenting focuses on positive character development. A research scientist says this approach to parenting “puts your kids in touch with their unique constellation of talents and character.” A rabbi says, strengths-based parenting “teaches a child to swim and helps them master their own Torah.” The scientist and the rabbi are both saying the same thing: parents that actively identify and develop their child’s strengths will help them thrive and the proven results are:
- Greater levels of happiness and engagement at school
- Higher levels of academic achievement
- Better work performance and heightened levels of satisfaction at work
- Higher levels of physical fitness and healthy lifestyles
- Increased levels of life satisfaction and self-esteem
- Reduced risk of depression and enhanced ability to cope with stress and diversity
Guiding a child to know their signature strengths is a gift from parent to child. As it says in the Book of Proverbs, “My child, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand [your natural strengths and how to use them for your best life possible].”