There is a yiddish word that describes a polite, smart, and thoughtful child — this is a mentsch — and I don’t know any parent who does not want their child to be a mentsch, yet not every child is a mentch. It takes more than faith, hope and good luck to have a kind and loving child and so I’m going to offer you some fresh ideas about how to raise a mentch by focusing on your child’s strengths and adopting a new framework called Strengths Based Parenting. This approach will help you raise your child’s level of wellbeing and happiness — and the result will be the mentch you have always dreamed your child would become.

In the last decade, most studies conclude that happy, well adjusted children, that have positive influences in their lives do better in school, have more energy, sleep better, are more relaxed, and have more friends. There are a lot of factors that go into raising this kind of child but you may be surprised to learn that it has less to do with the number of extracurriculars, tutors, travel experiences, and the size of their bedroom and the quality of their neighborhood.

Rather, a child’s wellbeing and happiness has do with the amount of love and attention they get from the primary adults in their lives, their feelings of emotional safety, and most importantly, by knowing and focusing on their strengths, rather than on their weaknesses — which is such a common parenting mistake.

The Jewish sages of over 2000 years ago claimed that a “parent must teach their child to swim.” These wise rabbis from so long ago believed that of all the lessons that a parent must teach their child, they must teach their child to swim. It’s really quite brilliant because swimming is about keeping your head above the water, it’s about being responsible for yourself, and it’s about learning how to survive on your own — the alternative is always needing to hold onto somebody else — letting them do the hard work — but if you cannot swim, you will drown.

Today’s child must learn to swim and every parent must teach their child to swim in the world. But in my opinion, as a parent myself, teaching a child to just survive is not enough. We must teach our children to thrive and to flourish and this happens by helping to developing and identifying their signature strengths and teaching them to swim their way to wellbeing and happiness –this is how you will raise your mentch: by focusing on your child’s signature strengths. Here’s how:

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 with other children, 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 and immediate praise for her daughter about everything she did. “Becca, your rock pile is amazing! Your slide down was amazing! That jump was amazing! Your hold on the monkey bars was amazing!” I admired her enthusiasm — and praise parenting does have positive value, but Becca’s mother is not teaching her how to swim. She is teaching her child to seek external attention and praise for her accomplishments. This parenting approach in itself has little to do with supporting a child’s independence because it focuses praise and attention on their accomplishments — rather than on their character strengths.

Another common mistake that parents make is focusing too much attention on their child’s weaknesses and trying to correct their “issues.” I see too many parents focused on correcting for weakness rather than on bolstering strength. They say, “he’s not strong in math so we got him a tutor because he needs to be able to perform well in math.”

Certainly children need to learn their math but does every child need to be an A student in math and does this parenting mindset lead to happy and well adjusted mentches — or does it create anxiety and strife in the child who learns from his parents that they are more interested in him being a great math student rather than developing his strengths. Some of these parents say, “but he needs to be competitive in math so he can do well on his SAT exams and get into the best university.”

Or they say, focusing on weakness develops grit. It may be true, but having grit and going to the best university does not reflect the quality of the child’s inner world, their level of positivity and happiness — or their wellbeing. Here, I’ve given the example of math — but the point is not about math it is about a parenting approach that focuses not on correcting for weakness, but rather on developing strength– in order to shape and encourage the best in your emerging mentch.

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 : optimism, bravery, creativity, gratitude, appreciation, kindness, resilience, and hope, rather than their accomplishments or their incremental weaknesses. You remember Becca, the girl in the park who’s mother focused only on her accomplishments. A strengths focused approach would look and sound like this:

Rather than, “Your rock pile is amazing!” Her mother would say, “Honey, I can see how much creativity you brought to this. Tell me about what you created,” After all, what appears to be a rock pile to mom, may be something very different for Becca. That’s when Becca says, “its not a rock pile, it’s a house where I’m going to live with Daddy” and Becca is feeling, “Rock pile? My mom does not know anything about me.”

Here’s another example, think about how to respond when your child is faced with an insult or a playground threat. Often, the response kids get has do with facing challenge and developing grit. So when the kid gets hit with a ball or gets put down by a peer, a typical parental reaction is: “you’ve got to stand up for yourself. Be a man. Don’t let that jerk get to you.” But rather, what if a parent focused on the strengths of the behavior,“I can imagine it was hard not throw that insult/ball/rock/back at him which took a lot of restraint and courage.” Restraint and courage are character strengths and that parent just helped his child identify his strengths by focusing upon them, rather than on grit and fear.

Here’s what we know. Strengths-based parenting focuses on positive character development — which is very Jewish. The research scientist says this approach to parenting “puts your kids in touch with their unique constellation of talents and character.” The rabbi says, strengths-based parenting approach “teaches a child to swim.” 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 will be:

  • Higher levels of academic achievement
  • Better work performance and heightened levels of satisfaction at work
  • Higher levels of physical fitness and healthy lifestyles
  • Better self-esteem
  • Reduced risk of depression and enhanced ability to cope with stress and diversity

This is a mentch.

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.”

In other words, “my child, there is a hidden treasure within you – they are your talents and your strengths – and I as your parent am going to help you identify them by shining a bright light upon your unique strengths. And as a result, you will thrive and flourish in your life as a happy, positive, and well adjusted person — and to be that mentch that you are destined to become.  

And so, dear parents who are holding the future in your hands, may you have much success on your path to raising the mentches in your life.



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