If you were asked what could be improved in your children, I doubt you'd jump straight to their strengths. No, like the rest of us, you'd automatically think of their faults – their impatience, their whining, their hitting their sister with the toy bat again, whatever the perceived flaw might be. It's how we're programmed to think of improvement.
But Dr. Lea Waters, founding director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, argues it would benefit both us and our kids more if we looked first at what they excel at, whether it's character traits such as patience and determination or abilities such as playing hockey or the piano. Teaching them to focus on improvement even when they're already good at something will help them develop the perseverance they need to keep trying things that are difficult.
The Globe and Mail's Dave McGinn spoke to Waters about her new book, The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish.
If we're focusing on a kid's strengths, are we showering him with false praise and ignoring faults? Do we risk raising entitled lazy weaklings?
You've got two ends of the pendulum. You've got the critical, harsh, nagging parent. And then you've got the permissive, overindulgent parent. In the middle, you've got the strength-based parent, who connects their child with both strengths and weaknesses in a very real and authentic way. People automatically think that if you're focusing on strength it means you can't focus on weakness. One of the counterintuitives with all of this is that when you become strength-based, you're able to have more constructive, more honest conversations with your children about their weak spots.
Why do we always focus on what's wrong with our kids? I feel like I'm just programmed to nag at them for the things that drive me up the wall.
The whole idea of strength-based parenting is learning how to reprogram yourself as a parent, taking more conscious control over what you look for and the patterns in your own brain. The more you start to look first for the good in your children, it spills out everywhere because you genuinely reprogram your brain. You start find it easier to see the strengths in your partner, in your friends, in your colleagues.
But my kids are still driving me insane. And I drove my parents insane. Isn't that just how it is?
We were raised by a generation, and our parents were raised by a generation before them, where the default assumption is that improvement is a process of fixing a weakness. At a societal level, we've made this mistake of thinking that improvement is a process of fixing what is wrong with us rather than understanding that we can also improve what is right with us.
You make this clear in the book, that it takes effort. Unlike the title might suggest, it's not a switch you simply flick once and you suddenly relate to your kids in a whole new way.
It's just like any big goal you have in your life. It's going to take effort. If you want to be a good parent, that is going to take effort. If you want to start repatterning your brain so you see the world through strength, that takes effort. But like all of those processes, the more that you do it, the easier that it becomes.
How do you identify strengths in kids and know which ones to nurture? My son has a strength for hitting other children, but I don't want to encourage it.
The three things that parents would be looking for if they want to identify what is a true strength in their children is a kind of enduring pattern of something that is performed well, gives your child energy when they do it and that they are self-motivated to do. And there's kind of a morality piece that comes in to it: It has to be something that is good for your child and good for others.
Some parents are so determined to make their kid discover strengths that they overschedule their lives. That's not healthy.
That was actually one of my fears about writing the book, is that there would be that type of parent who would then use my book to sort of rationalize or justify overscheduling their children or pushing their children to the limit all the time.
One of the things I like about the book is that when you focus on strength, you can better see who your children are, and help nurture the best in them.
You see your kids for who they are, good and bad, and your kids feel seen. It's such a primary psychological drive for all of us to know that we are seen and recognized and loved for who we are. There are so many people who have grown up with pain because they don't feel that their parents have seen them and loved them for who they are. I really think underneath all the science and the process of being a strength-based parent, the biggest gift is that you genuinely see your kids for who they are and they know that they are seen and loved for who they are.
Interview has been condensed and edited.