Have you ever wondered – with a small, or perhaps large measure of guilt – why we sometimes expend more energy on what our children are doing wrong, rather than what they are doing right, thinking that if we fix their weaknesses we will make them strong and successful?
According to Dr Lea Waters, author of The Strength Switch, there is a good reason for this negativity bias. It’s called ‘old wiring’. From an evolutionary perspective, we have survived by quickly identifying disruptions in the patterns of daily life as clues to possible danger or to weaknesses that put us at a disadvantage. This primeval tendency to zoom in on what’s ‘off’ has helped us size up our chances for survival. However, while the negative helped us survive, attention on the positive helps us to thrive.
This doesn’t mean ignoring weaknesses altogether, however, by focusing on your child’s strengths and building their confidence and understanding of what they are good at, weaknesses may become less relevant, or your child can apply their strengths to tackling their weaknesses.
Identifying Your Child’s Strengths
So how do you know what your child’s strengths are? According to Dr Waters there are three elements that come together to form a strength. They are:
Performance (being good at something)
Energy (feeling good doing it)
High Use (choosing to do it)
Does your child show above-age levels of achievement, rapid learning, and a repeated pattern of success? For example, the very young child who is able to construct sophisticated objects using Lego; the primary school student who reads prolifically and is able to use more complex words and sentence structures than her peers; or the teenager who consistently displays a more sophisticated understanding of emotions than most adults.
You child is energised when using a strength. They rarely get tired and time passes quickly as they find themselves in the ‘flow’ of the moment. For example, two hours at the piano or canvas feels like 20 minutes. This is not to be confused with an activity that captures the attention of your child for long periods of time but are unsettled or moody afterwards. This is escapism as opposed to playing to a strength. The key is to observe their energy level at the end of the activity.
3. High Use
Look out for what your child chooses to do in their spare time, how often they engage in a particular activity and how they speak about that activity.
Keeping this triad of elements in mind will help you avoid pushing your child into an area that seems like a strength just because your child is good at it. It also helps you differentiate between whether your child is bingeing on an activity in an escapist way or expressing a true strength.
Broadening the Definition of a Strength
We often think of a strength in terms of performance strengths such as writing, drawing, playing football, mastering the violin, excelling at maths and so on.
It is important to not overlook character strengths. Your child may demonstrate great leadership potential, show determination and persistence, are resourceful, funny, compassionate and brave. These strengths can also provide a point of focus during your child’s struggles with expectations around performance strengths.
About Dr Lea Waters
Dr Waters (PhD) is a psychologist, researcher, speaker and author who specialises in positive education, positive parenting, and positive organisations.
Professor Waters is the President of the International Positive Psychology Association, has affiliate positions with Cambridge University and University of Michigan and is the Ambassador for the Positive Education Schools Association.
Professor Waters has been a researcher at the University of Melbourne for 21 years and is the first Australian to be appointed as a Professor in Positive Psychology. She was the founding Director of the Centre for Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne.