Unfortunately, the joy of becoming a parent and the love we feel for our children don’t magically erase our capacity to be negative. We’re super-good at seeing what our children do wrong and jumping onto the negativity train.
Psychologists have identified four thinking processes wired into our brain that predispose us to this default. Tune in to them and use the special tool I’ll provide here, and you’ll be on your way toward the more positive, productive default setting of Strength-Based Parenting.
The Four Negative Defaults
Let’s take a closer look at the four negative defaults:
1. Selective Attention
Selective attention is our brain’s way of avoiding information overload by filtering incoming information. At any point in time, we get far more input than our brains can attend to. By selectively focusing on some aspects, our brain can make sense of the world, but it does this at the expense of noticing other aspects.
Selective attention isn’t always negative, but it is always distorting. When I was trying to get pregnant, it seemed every other woman working at my university was pregnant. No, it wasn’t because of some supernatural increase in the fertility of the area or because the genetics lab had slipped something into our drinking water. My attention was simply selecting pregnant women from the crowd because pregnancy was on my mind. Of course there was no baby boom at my university. It was just that my motivation to notice them had increased.
The key thing about selective attention is just to be aware of it. If we are, we realize that we have power over it and can choose the focus of our attention—for example, on our child’s strengths instead of on his weaknesses.
Simply put, we’re programmed to see what’s wrong faster and more frequently than what’s right.
But there are good evolutionary reasons for negativity bias. Think of it as your personal built-in security camera system. It zooms in on potential threats and sounds the alarm. We’ve all had the experience of feeling uneasy without being able to put our finger on exactly why. This is our negativity bias alerting us to a threat in our environment.
But the downside, especially for parenting, is that it directs us to see our child’s negative behaviors more readily than their positive behaviors. It fundamentally compromises our ability to see our children fully by only showing us a limited array of information instead of the whole picture.
Suppose a bright tenth grader comes home with this report card: A+, A, A, A, D. In other words, 80 percent of her grades are excellent and 20 percent are not. But which grade did you zero in on? And which of these grades do you think will occupy more of the dinner table conversation that night? In theory, that D should command about 20 percent of the conversation. Things are different in practice.
A strength-based approach does just that. Focusing on the areas where the girl is strong opens opportunities to analyze her work in those high-performance subjects and see what patterns can be transferred to the class where she got the D. What was it about her work in those other classes that allowed her to get an A? Instead of asking what’s going wrong, ask what’s going right.
That’s not to say that rose-colored glasses are the key to success. But our negativity bias distorts reality in the opposite direction. What we’re trying to do is cleave closer to reality: a blend of positive and negative. Too often the positive gets short shrift and doesn’t get utilized for its power to enhance achievement.
Now for an interesting twist. While we see weakness in others more readily than strengths, we’re very good at not seeing weakness in ourselves.
Naturally, positive self-views make us feel good and negative self-views make us feel bad. So our ego has developed ways to filter out the negative and amplify the positive in our sense of self. When confronted with information that challenges our positive self-view, our ego instantly seeks to restore the positive view, in a process psychologists call our “defense mechanisms.” Projection, also known as blame shifting, is a classic example.
In projection, we subconsciously displace our weakness onto others. Similar to old movie projectors, where the film is passed over the light to send or project the image onto a screen, in psychological projection, we project the negative image of ourselves onto someone else. Thus we trick ourselves into viewing that negative quality in another person and restore our positive self-view.
Projection can also cause us to try to superimpose our strengths—or desired strengths—onto our children. We’ve all seen the “sideline parents” who try to live through their children’s athletic feats, or stage parents who relentlessly push their kids’ performance abilities.
Strength-based parenting gives us the tools to see our children for who they really are—not who we are trying to force them to be—because it gives us clear, concrete criteria for defining a strength. Once you are able to identify your child’s particular talents and character traits, you can take your own projections out of the equation.
4. Binary Thinking
Binary thinking is what we do when we describe our children like this: “He’s the naughty one,” “She’s the serious one,” or, “He’s the class clown.” It’s what we do when we place our children into categories. It’s all about either/or.
Binary thinking fails to do justice to reality. People are never just one thing.
A consequence of binary thinking for parents is that it leads us to think that our kids either have strengths or they don’t. This just isn’t true. Strengths sit along a continuum from high to low, so a strength may be present and “grow-able” even if you don’t see much outstanding evidence of it.
Bottom line: The negatively biased, projection-prone, binary approach to parenting doesn’t let us see our children as they truly are.
The Strength Switch is a small but powerful tool fundamental to Strength-Based Parenting. It’s a mental switch I flick to shift my attention from a person’s weaknesses to their strengths.
I’d been getting better at seeing strengths in others—in my friends, my colleagues, my husband, and my kids, often thinking, I wonder what underlying strength is motivating them to do that.
I was doing it well when they were showing their strengths and when I was calm or in a good mood, but it all flew out the window when they weren’t showing their strengths or when I was preoccupied or stressed. I realized I needed a strategy to help me take a strength-based approach when strengths aren’t readily apparent or when I’m not primed to be looking for them.
I knew from the research that just because I wasn’t seeing my kids’ strengths didn’t mean they weren’t there. I had to find a way to shine light on them. I started to work on being mindful of that moment when the knee-jerk negative default started to take over, and pausing to get between myself and my reaction. I would 1) take a couple of deep breaths, and 2) insert a thought: The strengths are here, but they’re hiding. Let me switch over to find them. Thus the Strength Switch was born.
Tips for Getting Started
The four biases don’t magically vanish. But you’ll discover that your brain is bigger than your biases. You can override them. It’s actually a small shift. With a little practice, you’ll tune in and hit the switch faster every time. Life being what it is, you’ll get lots of chances to practice!
Here are some tips for learning to use your Strength Switch:
1. Start with low-stakes situations.
Try it in situations that don’t annoy the heck out of you, and when you’re not feeling stressed, tired, or hungry.
2. Progress to using the Strength Switch on those small issues that turn into big arguments.
You know what they are. It’s often these minor things that fester between children and parents. The slow eating at the dinner table. The constant reluctance to do homework. The unending requests to play computer games. The obsession with texting. The moodiness!
3. When you feel your negative defaults start to cascade, STOP. In those few seconds:
- Notice how you’re feeling. Annoyed? Furious? Frustrated? Disappointed? Acknowledge those feelings—they are legitimate—but don’t attach to them.
- Select a strength. Is there a strength you can remind your child to use in working through this situation? Ask yourself, What strength does my child have that could help her handle this differently? How would it change what I do or say about this? Ask yourself, What strength do I have that could help me handle this situation differently?
- Visualize the switch and tell yourself: “Flick the switch.” These visual and verbal cues help shift your attention.
- Speak to your child’s strengths. When you see a strength, call it. For example, if your children are sharing, you can thank them for their behavior and say how you see them using a strength: “Thanks for sharing with your sister. That’s really kind [or fair] of you.” You can call forward a strength that’s needed in a given situation. If your kids are fighting, instead of saying, “Stop fighting!” you can say, “Hey, how about some cooperation here?” If your son has lost motivation to study for exams, you can remind him, “Now’s the time for your perseverance to come to the fore.”
This post includes excerpts from Lea Waters’s book “The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish" which has numerous footnotes supporting the research cited here.
Photo credits (in order of appearance): Jason Leung, Louis Blythe, Pan Xiaozhen, Jeremy Yap, Kelly Sikkema, and Julia Caesar on Unsplash. Stockphoto.
Copyright © 2017 Lea Waters. All rights reserved.