Blogger Managing Children's Services Committee

We Don’t Need to be Superheroes!

As we become seasoned youth services librarians, it’s natural for our professional confidence and expertise around things like child development, children’s books, and summer learning to grow. At some point, we may feel like we’ve arrived! We are now ready to dole out ALL the brilliant advice! (I don’t know about you, but I can be an insufferable advice-giver. Just ask my family!)

A Deficits-Based Approach

And isn’t advice-giving sort of built into our jobs as librarians? When we work on the reference desk or the public service floor, we are there under the assumption that people will have problems for us to fix. Small problems (not finding the right book) and monumental problems (food and housing insecurity among a family of regulars) cross our paths daily. No fear! We have tools in our Super Librarian belts and resources to share!

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But if we position ourselves as superheroes, doesn’t it follow that we assume library users are victims who need saving? Despite our best intentions, this deficits-based assumption can subtly suggest to families that we do not value their inherent worth and potential.

When organizations act as experts on resolving the problems of people, we deny and limit those particular individuals facing the problem the opportunity to explore what strengths and capacities they might have in the process of exploring, participating, taking control and learning (Herman-Stahl & Petersen, 1996).

 A New, Strengths-Based Approach

Applying a strengths-based approach to customer service can have powerful outcomes for you and your library. A strengths-based approach:

  • Assumes that all people have strengths, expertise, and potential
  • Promotes a relationship of trust between library staff and customers
  • Allows us to learn side-by-side with our customers
  • Takes the pressure off us to be experts
  • Recognizes that dominant cultural and organizational assumptions can limit the growth of individuals, families and communities

So, how might youth services librarians apply this strengths-based approach? The most important first step is simple in concept and enormously challenging in practice—we can change our attitudes and assumptions about the families in our libraries. This takes practice, and you might have to fake it to make it at first. But gradually, applying strengths-based assumptions will start to become more natural… and you may even find yourself feeling more optimistic about working in public service.

Here are some familiar library scenarios with examples of how applying strengths-based assumptions might positively change our interactions with families:

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

A mother texts on her phone while her two young kids run around the library.

  • Deficits-based assumption: This is an inattentive parent who needs to be informed of our rules surrounding unsupervised children.
  • Strengths-based assumption: This mother is a competent person who knows more than I do about her children. There may be complicated reasons behind her decision to use her phone rather than pay close attention to her children in this moment. How can we partner with this parent to make sure her children are safe in the library?
Image courtesy of Creative Commons

A parent insists that his son, a reluctant reader, must read high level books and stay away from graphic novels and “easy books”.

  • Deficits-based assumption: This parent doesn’t understand the importance of reading motivation and only cares about getting his child into the best university.
  • Strengths-based assumption: This father loves his son and wants the best for him. There may be cultural or other factors influencing his parenting decisions and beliefs. How can we have a non-judgmental conversation with this father starting with the assumption that he is the expert when it comes to his family’s well-being?
Image courtesy of Creative Commons

During Stay & Play, a mother mentions she’s worried that her 18-month-old isn’t playing well with other kids.

  • Deficits-based assumption: This parent doesn’t know much about child development, so she would benefit from learning about parallel play and being assured that her child’s behavior is normal.
  • Strengths-based assumption: Whether or not this parent is familiar with child development theory, she is an expert when it comes to her child. Instead of positioning ourselves as authorities on child development, how can we use this interaction with the parent to build a partnership around the child? What open-ended questions can we ask to draw out the parent’s expertise before offering advice?


This strengths-based approach can also be a powerful tool for youth services managers to use when working with staff. Staff members who feel acknowledged, valued, and heard will be more likely to extend the same courtesy to the public!


Madeline Walton-Hadlock is the Early Education Manager at the San José Public Library and a member of the ALSC Managing Children’s Services Committee. You can reach her at 


  1. Tracee Yawger

    I like this approach, as it does encourage us to consider the individual in front of us. I would love to hear some suggestions for conversation starters regarding the parent-on-cellphone scenario 🙂

  2. Tess

    I think during programs (or preferably before they begin) it is totally acceptable to include a “please put your phones away” message in your preamble and encourage hands-on engagement during the program. Other than that, I guess you could distract the parent playing Candy Crush while her toddler plays with toys by commenting on something cute the kid is doing while you ignore the cellphone/Candy crush time completely. However, it is very difficult to see exactly what folks are doing on their phones without being really creepily nosy and actually looking. I am not sure I would be able to tell the difference at distance between Candy Crush and texting a co-parent about supper plans. And I’m not judging either activity! I am actually all for bored, stressed parents taking a bit of down time in the library as long as they keep their kids near them and manage their behavior (intervene when they fight over toys etc.) Caveat: Situations that involved perpetually ignored, disruptive children need to be attended to and their caregivers need to be reminded as diplomatically as possible that they must supervise their children appropriately for the safety and comfort of everyone. Sometimes our diplomacy skills are tested to the extreme but most often the parents realize they have been slacking and get on with things the way grown ups should, no harm done.

  3. Madeline Walton-Hadlock

    This philosophy can be so tricky to apply; I’ve found it takes a lot of trial and error to find conversation starters that work. And of course, what works with one parent may flop with another!

    I agree with Tess that using the behavior of the child as your language can be a good way to start on a positive foot. In fact, this is one of the guiding principles of Brazelton Touchpoints, which is a strengths-based model for working with families and understanding child development. If the children are running around taking books off the shelves, you might say something like, “It looks like your children are excited about being around all these books!” (And this isn’t disingenuous, right? Even if the behavior is disruptive, we really are happy to see kids flipping out over books!) The hope is that the mom will then take a moment to focus on her kids and perhaps share something about them with you.

    I’d love to hear other people’s ideas about how to approach this parent!

  4. Deborah

    I love this post. I have been working on changing my mindset with patrons, too. Before I was a parent, I made all kinds of assumptions about parents and their children who came into the library. As a parent, and recognizing that I have a son that can’t walk anywhere (his default movement is running) and that no matter how much I talk to him about walking in the store, in the parking lot, in the library, he won’t–and it doesn’t mean I can’t control my child. There are so many variables when it comes to our patrons no matter the age and we know their motivations.

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