Here I am sitting at a too-small table with my second grader’s teachers for another Parent-Teacher conference, but this time there is venom in my veins and a quiet rage in my speech. Once again the focus of this meeting will be on my son’s need to shore up his math skills and pay more attention in class. This time, however, I am turning the discussion to his talents and hope to enlighten them on “getting through to him” via emphasizing his strengths, not continually harping on his weaknesses. You see I have just read “Your Child’s Strengths”, written by Jenifer Fox, an educator and advocate of a teaching method that is contrary to our country’s weakness based traditional system – a system “preoccupied with fixing weaknesses rather than enhancing strengths.” It’s also a system obsessed with memorization and competition via standardized tests, and the result is that kids lose their love of learning and end up dropping out – staggering numbers do so each year. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best, “We are students of words: We are shut up in schools, and colleges, for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing.”
So, armed with a new fervor instilled in me by this book, I am prepared at this meeting to steer the conversation to my son’s strengths (and btw they do admit during this conference that he is a brilliant reader, speller and, yes, an excellent artist). That he is creative is an understatement. He’s on his way to being one of the greatest artists of his time. While this is the opinion of his loving mother, it is no less true. I tell his teachers that I have no worries for his future, but do worry that a constant focus on his weaknesses is going to do greater harm to him than not knowing how to do long division.
The fact is I shudder to think of the years of education ahead of him and how this system may end up squashing his spirit, as he already hates going to school and always asks me how much longer he will have to go. I almost feel bad when I tell him that he will be in school for at least another 14 years as it sounds like a prison sentence. When I look back at my school years, I can only think of two major skills that prepared me for the future: Typing and English. Math, of course, does come in handy, but only the basics of arithmetic and perhaps geometry. I have never once had to use any calculus or trigonometry. One might say that while we may not use what we learned in these higher math classes, they nonetheless contributed to our knowledge and intelligence. I have no argument there. Education is important, for certain, but I would rather we had a system that instilled a love of learning in our children and motivated them by focusing on teaching the individual child, enhancing their strengths and using these strengths to build up any basic skills they may be lacking. How many parents rack their brains thinking of ways to help little Johnny or Susie stay focused in class? How many times have we screamed at our children to just “do the work” and get on with it? Doesn’t all this pressure and negative “enforcement” just serve to belittle, frustrate and stifle the child? What if instead we used a child’s love of art to demonstrate time or word problems? Or used a child’s love of music to teach the history of the American Revolution? Jenifer Fox says it best, “We foster weakness when we force children to sit all day absorbing content for which they will never have any use, then chastise them for not showing any interest.” To this I say, if we must teach subjects that will have no bearing on their future, then why don’t we at least make it interesting for them?
My goal is to start a strengths movement in our educational system. There are schools that have already pioneered more effective methods of learning that focus on the whole child and focus on bringing out the best in a child. The ones that immediately come to mind are The Waldorf Schools, Montessori Method, among others. There’s also something called The Affinities Program, a strengths movement aimed at helping young people discover their own strengths. Google it, it’s worth a read and definitely information that can help educate us on how to better educate our children.
Marina Echavarria is the U.S. partner for Handle Your Own PR and the owner of Realm Media Productions, Inc. and Build-A-Buzz, a blog and e-newsletter that provides tips and resources to small businesses and entrepreneurs. Marina is also a mom of two lovely boys, ages 8 and 5. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons.