Parenting Solutions: Ways to Unlock a Child's Potential

Encouragement from parents and significant adults can play a vital role in helping a child realize his or her infinite possibilities.


Affirm children whenever possible, from their taking a first step to tackling a first job outside the home.

Author Christopher Paul Curtis, whose book Bud, Not Buddy won the prestigious Newbery Medal for distinguished contribution to American literature for children, says one of his most memorable life lessons took place on a Saturday in 1963.

Five men came to the door of the Curtis home and were warmly greeted by Christopher’s father. Co-workers of Mr. Curtis from the Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint, Mich., the five had failed the math portion of a test required for promotion to a skilled trade. “We’ll start with fractions,” the author remembered his dad saying as he handed the men pencils, paper, and copies of math questions. “How to find the lowest common denominator…”

Four times each week for the next two months, the men returned for three-hour tutoring sessions. Reminiscing in an article in USA Weekend magazine, Curtis remembered the patience the men exhibited as they went over a problem time after time. He also recalled the joy on his father’s face when he came home from work and announced: “They all passed!”

The incident demonstrates a lesson for parents who want to help their children cultivate their potential: Children do what children see—in this case, the young Curtis seeing adults model growth and expand their potential. By example, parents can demonstrate, in diverse ways, that personal growth and maximizing potential are important.

The following are some other ways parents can help unlock a child’s potential:

OPENLY ENJOY AND CELEBRATE YOUR CHILDREN’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS.

Every child’s life is filled with accomplishments and milestones that ought to be recognized within a family. Praise, affirm, cheer, endorse, or bless them whenever and however you can, as they rise to an occasion, meet a new challenge, or master a new skill. Take nothing for granted as a child develops and learns. Celebrate and praise children from their first step, to their first ride on a bicycle, to learning to read, swim, or skate, making a great kick in soccer, or getting a first job, car, or date. Lift your children upward and onward by encouraging them rather than criticizing and judging.

EXPECT GREAT THINGS.

Too many people limit themselves because they have low expectations for themselves and others. Let children know they are capable of doing great things, that opportunities abound, that they should aim high and do their best. Consistently and clearly remind children that “life is what you make it.”

BE CHARITABLE WHEN CHILDREN MAKE MISTAKES.

“Children should not get the message that something is wrong with them for making mistakes,” says John Gray, Ph.D., in his book Children Are From Heaven. “Too many shaming messages make children feel they are bad, unworthy, or that something is wrong with them. They feel defeated and lose their natural motivation and confidence.” When children make a mistake, help them get up from their fall and support them as they work to move forward.

TEACH CHILDREN TO MAKE DECISIONS AND SOLVE PROBLEMS.

Choosing and deciding can be instilled in children at the earliest ages. Some simple ways of doing this include presenting a child with choices and decisions to make using these kinds of questions: Do you want to eat at 6 or 7 o’clock? Do you want pizza or spaghetti for dinner? Do you want to get up at 6:30 or 6:45 in the morning? Do you want to wear a jacket or a sweater? Begin this process early and children will gradually develop their abilities to discern, make choices, and live with their decisions.

PROMOTE A STRONG WORK ETHIC COMBINED WITH POSITIVE THINKING.

Consistently remind children that while opportunities abound in life, they come to those who have a high work ethic coupled with an almost unbridled optimism.

ENCOURAGE PATIENCE.

Most people have a tendency toward wanting immediate gratification. But because true satisfaction and lasting rewards come through diligent and persistent pursuit of a goal, the ability to handle delays en route to a goal should be instilled in children.

A good example of good things coming to those who are willing to work and wait occurred several years ago when I was coaching a youth hockey team. One of the eighth-grade players volunteered to be the team goalie, a position he had never played. As the team lost most of its games, the young man struggled to learn the intricacies of the position.

But he returned the following year to play goalie again. He was six inches taller, more muscular, and had spent several weeks over the summer at a hockey camp practicing and learning more about the position. His hard work and patience began to pay off as his team won more games, eventually winning the league championship.

Here is a simple exercise to use when your child’s patience is running out. Ask him or her to think of something that took a long time to learn, like riding a bike or swimming. Then ask: “Now that you’ve accomplished that goal, was it worth the wait?” Inevitably, the answer is “yes,” and the value of being patient is appreciated.

Children come into this world filled with infinite possibilities, but some fail to tap into their potential because they lack encouragement from the significant adults in their lives. Every parent as well as other adults who interact with children can play a vital role in helping unleash that potential.

Victor M. Parachin is a freelance writer in Tulsa, Okla.

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