What’s Your Child’s Potential? (And Does it Really Matter?)

What’s Your Child’s Potential? (And Does it Really Matter?)

What’s Your Child’s Potential? (And Does it Really Matter?)

Adults often refer to children’s potential. Everyone has “potential” but how much, and who knows in advance? What should parents focus on if not potential?

Parents and teachers sometimes heave a fretful sigh and say to kids, “You’re not working up to your potential.” However, what exactly does that mean? How can we possibly know what anyone’s potential is?

Here are three important considerations:

We don’t know what the future holds.

People often refer to a child’s potential as if it were something predictable. However, as I write elsewhere, “Potential is really an invisible unknown that cannot be measured. Assessing a child’s ability at any one point in time provides very few clues about her potential for success in the future. Too many factors and influences in life can affect a person’s later success.”(i) That’s why it’s important for parents to offer supports and buffers, and to be available to listen, guide, reinforce, and comfort kids as they experience the ups and downs of daily life—and NOT make assumptions about potential.

Who is setting the bar for potential anyway?

When adults admonish a child, and put it in the context of “not reaching potential” what they’re really conveying is that the child is not living up to their particular standards or expectations. Potential shouldn’t be an end-goal. It’s too elusive. It’s not clear-cut. A far more sensible and productive approach is to help a child develop a strong work ethic, based on her own aspirations and choices—encouraging her to set objectives that are fair and attainable, and then to strive to reach them. Instead of focusing or remarking on her potential, comment on her efforts, resilience, or initiative. Acknowledge what she can do now, and pay attention to what she’s working on, whether it relates to academics, athletics, the arts, or something else altogether.

Have faith in children’s capabilities.

Part of the job of being a good parent or teacher involves encouraging children to try new things, to ask questions and explore, and to become more adept at whatever it is that they can already do. Those foundational skills are extremely useful for productive self-discovery, including developing creativity! In his book, Ungifted—Intelligence Redefined, Scott Barry Kaufman ponders the concept of potential. He says, “Everyone has unique needs and is worthy of encouragement. In the real world, people clearly differ in their inclinations, passions, dreams, and goals.” (ii) Indeed! Successful outcomes come in different guises, at different times, and by virtue of different challenges and experiences. Let’s help kids enjoy and learn from all that life has to offer, and not call into question their intelligence, creativity, self-confidence, or enthusiasm by talking about or focusing on their potential.

“Human ability is far too complex and variable to use for predicting limits or future successes.” (iii) We can’t foretell who will accomplish great things, or become a world leader, or have innovative ideas that will change the face of our planet or solve society’s ills. And, although a good education and a supportive home are critically important, they alone do not enable us to determine a person’s potential. Life is too unpredictable and, as such, we must do our best to encourage children to aspire and try hard in whatever they choose to do, be, or create.


[i] Foster, J.  (2015). Not Now, Maybe Later: Helping Children Overcome Procrastination. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press, p. 106.

[ii] Kaufman. S.B. (2013).  Ungifted—Intelligence Redefined. The Truth about Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness. New York: Basic Books, p. xx.

[iii] Matthews, D. and Foster, J. (2014). Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids. Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press. p. 20. For more information on potential see the segment entitled “Smashing the Crystal Ball” pp. 7 - 9.

 For additional articles and resources visit www.beyondintelligence.net


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