This week, nurse President Obama implored school children to take responsibility for their own educations. He said, “I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself. Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.”
President Obama is right. Once children know their own strengths and talents and understand how to put them to use, they can create their futures. Schools are very good at teaching children about their weaknesses and helping them see what they cannot do and what they do not know. We are far less skilled at teaching students to understand what they love to do. This should be the nation’s educational charge.
President Obama said, “ We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country. Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.” Here, he was affirming what we know to be true, but what we deter when we try to standardize every child. The reality that the President understands is that every child is unique. All children have strengths and talents inside them, and yet there is the possibility that their uniqueness will go unrecognized.
Students today need to discover and develop their strengths in order to avoid a life of weakness. What does weakness look like? We stare weakness in the face every day and often have no idea what we are looking at or where it comes from. Weakness is a feeling of depletion, a constant draining of energy. There are countless ways that people experience and express feelings of weakness and depletion. It can manifest as the perpetual sense that tomorrow, or next year, things are going to get better—but they don’t.
Weak lives begin in childhood, yet often the damage done then is subtle and doesn’t show up until later in life, when many factors and events merge together to create feelings of uncertainty, a lack of creativity, a loss of direction, and an insatiable hunger for something more. Weak lives can cause people to make poor and hasty marriage choices or rush into careers they have no taste for, or blame others when things do not go well. Weakness is a trap, but it can be avoided. The opposite of weakness is strength. Strong lives are those that are marked by a sense of purpose, connectedness, resilience, and fulfillment. So how can we foster these traits in our children?
Children are not that different from adults. They want clear and realistic goals, expectations for their futures, and systems that will allow them to arrive at those goals feeling fulfilled and strong. They also want a voice in setting those goals and expectations for their futures. When children go to a particular college, take up a new hobby, or follow a career path just to please someone else, they end up in positions of weakness, not strength. No matter what their personalities or characteristics, children will not develop their true talents or discover their real strengths without a process of encouragement, nurturing, and sustained approval. Additionally, students need programming to directly help them figure out their talents.
Most parents share a growing anxiety about the schooling of their children. That is because the American educational system today is an anxiety-producing machine. The alarming message it presents is that there is not enough to go around for everyone to be successful. However, when children are encouraged to discover their uniqueness, there is suddenly enough to go around. They can begin to envision a future where they play a special role.
President Obama is correct; children’s strengths are not for us to choose. Each person must understand their own talent and take responsibility for them. However, there is something we can do: we can provide school cultures, families and strengths-based programming to teach them in practical, step-by-step ways to discover their strengths and talents. This is called the Strengths Movement and our President just affirmed that now is the time for such a movement in our schools.
As we advance in the world, our children will need to be prepared to enter a workforce that is entirely different from the one we are in today. Discovering and developing strengths in children will create a society that will allow everyone to benefit and flourish. Strengths-building programs are more than just another innovation in schools; they will be one of the answers to the problems of the future of education.
There are vast reserves of untapped potential residing in our children. Their strengths are as various as the children themselves. When we acknowledge that and truly know our children, everyone wins. Moreover, we will ensure our competitive edge as a nation. A national strengths awakening will take a revolution. In the long run, it is what will save us all. It is a big job, and it requires everyone’s strength. The time is now.