Margaret Nelson: View From the River – The best way to build strength

  • Margaret Nelson COURTESY PHOTO

Published: 3/16/2023 9:00:40 AM

This month, I am thinking about being strong.

When I was in my 20s, I didn’t really think about it. I could sit at a desk all week and then hike Mount Katahdin on Saturday. I slept well that night, but my muscles could adjust without too much complaint.

When I was pregnant with our first baby, I was hoping the doctor would agree with me that helping Dave haul in the firewood was too heavy for me. The doctor thought it would be great exercise for me  (sigh). When I was in my 30s, I didn’t really think much about taking a walk with a baby in the backpack, another in the stroller and cajoling the oldest to keep up with me.

Now, I am taking a strength-training class. Lest you picture 100-pound barbells, no, that’s not it. We use small hand and ankle weights to increase muscle and bone strength, which, as it turns out, is a good thing to do.

Why am I thinking about being strong? As I write this column, we are having an epic nor’easter. My husband and I just came in from the first wave of snowblowing and shoveling. It is still snowing and we will likely do this another couple of times before the storm is over. So far, we have about 18 inches.

As I shovel, I think about keeping my back straight, my knees bent, my chin tucked and to breathe. Always breathe. It is good to be strong enough to do the things you want to do and need to do, but you do have to work at being strong, staying strong.

At The River Center, we take a strengths-based approach to supporting families. What does this look like? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at states this, “Strengths-based practice involves a shift from a deficit approach, which emphasizes problems and pathology, to a positive partnership with the family. The approach acknowledges each child and family's unique set of strengths and challenges, and engages the family as a partner in developing and implementing the service plan.”

Personally, I don’t respond well when someone points out my faults. I get defensive, discouraged and ultimately give up trying to improve. I have a feeling I am not alone in this response. On the other hand, if someone points out what I am doing well, I get inspired. I try harder. I get excited about what I can do, not discouraged about what I can’t do.

When I go to my strength training class, we approach our exercises with a strengths-based approach. Everybody goes at their own pace. If it hurts, stop. If it isn’t challenging enough for you, add some weight or do more repetitions. The point is to increase your strength, which assumes you are strong and you are working on getting stronger. It feels good to approach life with this mindset.

Being a parent or a caregiver of children is a challenging job. It is not always clear what to do or how to do it. Every child is different. Anxiety, doubt, guilt are common feelings. We don’t need someone telling us where we are failing. We do need to have someone point out what we are doing well.

Praise a child for trying to clean up the spilled milk even if they are making a bigger mess of it. They will be more inclined to try to clean up the next spill. But if you point out they are making a bigger mess, they may become discouraged and stop trying. A parent who is trying to feed their family as best they can doesn’t necessarily need to have a lecture on the evils of pre-packaged foods. But having fresh produce and healthy options at the food pantries sure helps to encourage healthier diets. 

Families respond well to a positive, strengths-based approach. Family activities encourage friendships and learning from each other. This family encourages their 3-year-old by clapping their hands in joyful response when she shares with her sibling, Billy’s parents let him choose which hat he will wear rather than telling him to put on his red hat. One-on-one parenting support starts with pointing out specific strengths of the family to encourage and strengthen.

Why do we use a strengths-based approach with families? Because it works to build stronger families. And stronger families are better prepared for the storms of life. They have built up the muscles needed to power through challenging times. They are prepared.

Let’s continue to work on being strong and staying strong.

Happy spring!

Margaret Nelson is executive director of The River Center Family and Community Resource Center.

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