My son sucks at names. Part of it’s his ADHD; part of it’s just forgetting immediately when someone introduces themselves. This became a major issue when the time came to send birthday invitations. Blaise didn’t know who his friends were. “That blonde girl who likes fossils” isn’t exactly a decent way to address an invitation. We didn’t pretend this wasn’t an issue.
“I know you suck at names, Blaise, but are there any you do remember?” I asked in despair.
He reeled off two or three.
I resisted the urge to say “shit.”
“So let’s come up with ways for you to remember people’s names. You can ask them or have someone else ask for you, like me, because that’s not weird or awkward. You can repeat their name several times after you get introduced and tell them you’re bad with names, so you might ask again. You can ask your co-op teacher. How about we practice those ideas?”
My kids are pretty damn awesome. But they aren’t awesome at everything. And like every kid, they need to know that — not just on a functional level (we needed to get those birthday party invitations out) but also on a social level. They need to know what their strengths and weaknesses are in order to work around and with them.
But most importantly, they need to know they have weaknesses.
Helicopter kids don’t get to fail — to fall off the monkey bars, to read the wrong word, to earn the wrong grade. When they don’t get to fail, they develop an artificial sense of how good they are at, well, everything. And they have no sense of their own weaknesses. So when they fall, they fall flat on their faces and wash up in the counseling office.
It’s a delicate thing to work with your kids’ weaknesses. Everyone’s afraid of bringing them down or demoralizing them. That’s how we get helicopter parents; they don’t want to damage what they see as fragile self-esteem. But there are easy ways to help your kids understand their weaknesses, strengthen them, and know their genuine strengths as well.
1. Admit your own weaknesses.
Not in the Barbie “math is sooo hard” sort of way. Genuinely admit the things you have problems with—being punctual, for example, or paying bills on time. Make it a conversation, not a statement: “It’s so hard for me to get places on time. I never know how long it’ll take me to get ready, and I get tangled up doing things I can leave for later. I hate it.” Then give your kid a chance to respond. They’ll probably offer a solution. They know instinctively that most weaknesses can be overcome with hard work.
2. Admit your kid’s weaknesses.
It’s hard, I know. We want to couch it in “math isn’t his strongest subject,” not “Johnny can’t add.” But we need to screw up our courage and say it: “Wow, you’re not great at riding a bike.” But don’t leave it there: “We can practice some more, if you’d like.” This emphasizes that hard work and solutions can help overcome weaknesses.
3. Talk about how they can overcome those weaknesses.
If working harder at math and doing extra work at home will help your child, tell them so and make a plan. If your child dyscalculia, work with with their therapist to set achievable goals.
4. Don’t set up false hopes.
You may need to make it clear that your child will never be as good as their peers at whatever they’re weak at. They may never be as good at math as their classmates, the same way you won’t ever be able to do ballet. That’s OK. You can balance it out by talking about how everyone has strengths and weaknesses, including and especially you. Try something like, “I wish I could do ballet like her, but I’ll never be able to. Are there things you feel that way about?”
5. Don’t overpraise.
Kids who are inundated with praise come to both expect it and ignore it. It loses its effectiveness, and if you want to talk honestly about what a kid does well—which you need to do if you talk about their weaknesses—you need to reserve your praise.
6. Don’t say ‘Good job!’
Rather than “Good job!” try “Wow, you really worked hard!” That emphasizes their effort and makes it seem like they accomplished something not by natural talent, but by hard work. Kids can always work hard, but they don’t always have natural talent. If they’re relying on natural talent and it fails them, they can fall apart.
7. Talk about your child’s strengths.
If you’re honest about their weaknesses, this won’t go in one ear and out the other, the way it will if they’re inundated with a constant flood of praise. “You’re great at reading hard words,” or “You can pass the soccer ball really well,” are specific, direct acknowledgements that hone in on your child’s specific strengths. You need to do this if you honestly discuss your child’s weaknesses. You don’t want them to think they aren’t especially good at anything, the way they’re especially bad at others.
Chances are, unless you’re raising a wunderkind, your kid is, uh, not good, at something. Basically, in some area, your kid sucks. Your job, as a parent, is to make sure they know that so they don’t embarrass themselves, so they can improve, and so they can know themselves and the world around them. You’re not bringing your kid down when you help them talk about their weaknesses. You’re building them up.