Parents today have a lot more to worry about. My parents didn’t have to think about screen time, cyberbullying, or sexting. Expectations of parents are growing, too. We’re raising kids in an era ruthlessly focused on grades, college admission, earning potential, and social acceptance.
There also seems to be less and less consensus—and more scrutiny—on the “right” way to parent. We’re bombarded by conflicting approaches to raising good, successful kids. It can lead to anxiety about whether we’re doing what’s best for our child. We may feel so pressured to help our children grow into the person society says they should be that we may not be allowing them to grow into the person they actually are.
grow into the person society says they should
be that we may not be allowing them to grow
into the person they actually are.
This approach is rooted in positive psychology and provides a child with two vital psychological tools:
1. Optimism: the force that motivates your child to create a positive future for herself
2. Resilience: your child’s capacity to bounce back when life throws a curveball
You may be thinking, That sounds great in theory, but how do I help my child acquire and use these tools?
Most parents tell me they want to prepare their kids to be optimistic and resilient but often fall into the trap of of “right intention—wrong direction.” We mistakenly believe that the way to make our kids optimistic and resilient is to weed out all their weaknesses. Strength-based science shows the opposite is true. It tells us to turn the bulk of our attention to expanding their strengths rather than reducing their weaknesses.
- Positive qualities that energize us, that we perform well, and choose often.
- Used in productive ways to contribute to our goals and development.
- Built over time through our innate ability and dedicated effort.
- Qualities recognized by others as praiseworthy, and they contribute positively to the lives of others.
Focusing on your child’s strengths is the basis of what I call “strength-based parenting” (SBP).
Why Focusing on Strengths Makes Sense Today
Our quest to define and live “the good life” goes back to the ancient philosophers, but only in recent decades have we started examining the question scientifically. The strength-based approach gives us the power to live the good life by drawing on our most abundant inner resources. When we use it with our children, they internalize the idea that they have strengths, and they learn to use them to take charge of their life.
I have two words for you: old wiring.
Our brains were shaped by the rigors of survival into becoming brilliant pattern detectors. For most of our evolution, we’ve survived by quickly alerting to disruptions in the patterns of daily life as clues to possible danger or to weaknesses that put us at a disadvantage: That unusual movement in the grass might be a lurking predator… That one unsmiling face around the tribal campfire might be an enemy… and so on. This primeval tendency to zoom in on what’s “off” helped us size up our chances for survival and decide whether our world might be about to turn upside-down.
This negative bias can be hugely helpful when your life’s at stake. But most of us don’t face such extremes. For the situations we encounter today—which usually demand complex reasoning and problem solving, sophisticated cooperation and communication, reserves of persistence, or expert facility in a specific skill—the negative bias can put us at a disadvantage because it blinds us to opportunities, keeps us from seeing the larger picture, and bars access to the expansive thinking that unlocks innovation, collaboration, adaptability, growth, success, and fulfillment.
Attention on the positive helps us thrive.
- greater levels of happiness and engagement at school
- smoother transitions from kindergarten to elementary school and from elementary to middle school
- higher levels of academic achievement (as found in high school and college students)
- greater levels of happiness at work
- greater likelihood of staying at work
- better work performance
- greater likelihood of staying married and being happy in your marriage
- higher levels of physical fitness and of engaging in healthy behaviors (e.g., healthy eating, visiting the doctor)
- better recovery after illness
- increased levels of life satisfaction and self-esteem
- reduced risk of depression
- enhanced ability to cope with stress and adversity
Rationally, we all know there are better tools than the “old” negative model. How many times have you inwardly cringed after you’ve snapped at your child, thinking, Why didn’t I handle that more constructively? We just need to know exactly what those tools are and how to use them.
Each of us has many strengths. We all have specific talents (e.g., physical, mental, social, technical, or creative) as well as positive personality traits (e.g., capacity for courage, kindness, or fairness), some in stronger doses than others. SBP puts your kids in touch with their unique constellation of talents (which are performance based) and character (which is personality based). In the process, it changes your kids and it will change you.
It is never too late to start SBP, nor will it make your children arrogant or self-important.
A strong child is a child who can play to his strengths while simultaneously working on his weaknesses because his solid self-identity gives him the sturdy foundation necessary to acknowledge and address the areas he needs to improve. Being strength-based doesn’t mean we ignore weaknesses. It means we view and approach them from a different, larger context.
touch with their unique constellation of talents
and character. In the process, it changes your
kids and it will change you.
Let me be clear that while strength-based parenting leads to greater levels of happiness in you and your kids, it’s not about creating an artificially positive, saccharine-sweet environment where your kids face no challenges. SBP is as much about helping your kids use their strengths to grow during the bad times as it is about helping them thrive during the good times. Adversity, if supported in the right way, can build strengths in our kids. Connecting your child to her strengths during tough times is one of the most powerful things you can do as a parent. SBP energizes parents and develops confidence in kids because it builds on what each person already has inside, rather than trying to “fix” or put in what was left out.
Most of us are doing the best we can as parents. And if you’re not strength-based, that doesn’t mean you’re not a good parent. What I do know, though, is that SBP helps us be better as parents. It helps us combine our love for our kids with the latest information in strength-based science, with the goal of giving our children the best possible start in life.
Perhaps best of all, despite the complex science behind why it works so well, implementing SBP is relatively simple. In fact, I’ve boiled it down to two steps. First you see your child’s strengths. Then you build on them.
Finally, by helping your child realize her strengths—and discover new ones—you’ll be cutting through the competing parenting advice out there. Confusion will be replaced with confidence because your child’s inherent strengths will lead the way. You’ll help your child learn how to transfer and expand her strengths across multiple domains, draw on them in times of struggle, and use them to create a positive future for herself. Finally, and maybe even most important, you’ll help your child use her strengths in ways that enrich the lives of others.
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): Shutterstock, Andrew Robles on Unsplash, Shutterstock, Alexander Dummer on Unsplash, Jenn Evelyn Ann on Unsplash
Copyright © 2017 Lea Waters. All rights reserved.