Standing for Strength-Based Parenting in a World Obsessed with Weakness
As the mother of two children (14 and 10) I know first-hand parenting can feel overwhelming. We’re the CEOs of our children’s lives, responsible for all the different departments: cognitive, physical, social, emotional, moral, sexual, spiritual, cultural, and educational. The buck starts and stops with us.
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.
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.
What’s the best approach to help our children develop in healthy and successful ways? Based on my psychological research on well-being; my work with schools, workplaces, and parents; and my own experience as a parent, I think the best approach is one that supports your child’s ability for self-development so that over time your child has the tools to take on the mantle of CEO.
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?
Strength-Based Parenting: The Antidote to “Parent Overwhelm”
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.
Why, then, do we tend to focus on the negative? As many parents confide to me: “I love my kid, but I keep criticizing him. What’s going on?”
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 negative helped us survive. Attention on the positive helps us thrive.
Three decades of research clearly shows the advantages of taking a strength-based approach for children and adults alike, including:
– 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.
So, What Exactly Is Strength-Based Parenting?
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.
Strength-Based Parenting puts your kids in touch with their unique constellation of talents and character. In the process, it changes your kids and it will change you.
SBP isn’t about lavishing kids with the false and excessive praise that leads to big-headed narcissism. It’s about real praise based on your child’s actual strengths. And since none of us is so perfect that we’re showing our strengths all the time, rest assured you won’t fall into a trap of excessive praise. There’s no risk of creating a self-involved child who thinks she’s the only special one in the world. If anything, SBP drives home the point that our strengths make us unique, but they don’t make us special—because everyone has strengths. There’s actually nothing special about having strengths. What is special is how we learn to use them in ways that are good for us and for others. That’s what SBP achieves.
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 credit: Jenn Evelyn Ann on Unsplash)