It wasn't until I became a parent that I recognized my tendency to focus on the negative. Though my children all have strengths I can easily name and appreciate, I sometimes find myself harping on the areas where they are weak. I know this approach isn't helping us build stronger relationships, and I don't feel good about it.
Psychologists and therapists agree that parenting that focuses on a child's weaknesses over his strengths is problematic. Dr. Fawn McNeil-Haber writes, "focusing on children's weaknesses decreases their motivation to do better. This is because, like many of us, when people point out what we aren't good at we either feel demoralized, defensive, or annoyed. None of these feelings help us motivate to do better and try harder."
Sara Anderson, an Atlanta-based psychotherapist, says how we approach our children affects their view of their potential: "If you focus on what is wrong, your child lives up to your vision of failure. If you focus on your child’s strengths, your child lives what is possible."
The problem is focusing on the bad is what our brains do. We all have a negativity bias, and that's not always a bad thing. From an evolutionary perspective, the negativity bias has been hugely beneficial in keeping humans alive because they stayed aware of potential threats in their environments. Even now, it can be helpful.
Unfortunately, it's also the reason I am much more likely to notice my daughter's lack of organizational skills over her ability to approach her entire life with passion. Because I am focusing on the negative, she's learning to do the same, and her mind will fixate on the bad interactions we've had over the good ones because that's what our brains are wired to do.
Lea Waters, PhD, writer of "The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish" and a leader in positive psychology, offers a solution. Her strength-based parenting approach teaches us how to pull away from the negative when raising kids to offer the entire family a more positive experience in the home. Parents focus on the kids' strengths, the kids know they have strengths, and the entire journey is smoother for everyone. Sounds easy, but since we're built to focus on the negative, how do we shift towards pointing out the positive?
Knowing what our children's strengths are is the first step. Most of us simply look at what our children are good at and assume it's a strength. We ask, where do they excel? While that's one qualifier, it's not enough. If a child is great at playing the violin but hates it, Waters says violin playing isn't a strength. It's a skill.
Strengths are not just what we're good at, but what we're motivated to do on our own, and what give us energy. Thinking about our kids, what do we never have to beg them to do? What gives them life? That's a strength.
My daughter is a strong leader and communicator, often verbalizing and storytelling even when her listeners are worn out. My son uses art as a way to communicate, and he has never once had to be told to sit down and create. He can't imagine not creating.
Though these strengths may seem specific to only certain areas of life, we can use them to guide our kids and to teach them to handle conflict in other areas. When my son is upset about something that he can't articulate, I can ask him to use his strength in art instead of demanding he verbalize. Verbalization under pressure is not his strength.
We can also evaluate for emotional strengths, like kindness, patience, or fairness. When our kids have a conflict, instead of always pointing out their weaknesses and making them feel like bad kids, we can point out strengths they aren’t using. When my daughter chooses to scream when upset, I can tell her, "You're not using your strengths in communication and kindness right now, and I think you can solve the conflict better if you do." I'm reminding her that she is capable of fixing this situation, and she's already equipped with the strengths to do it.
On The Psychology Podcast with Scott Barry Kaufman, Waters points out another reason to know a child's strengths and lead with them: they may be the cause of behavioral problems. Overuse or underuse of a strength can lead to behavioral issues.
My son, who is obsessed with accuracy in a way that only a seven-year-old can be, often gets in trouble because of his absolute desire for perfection. When his younger sister pronounces a word incorrectly, he will badger her until she is in tears under the guise of trying to help her speak properly. This is overusing a strength. In certain areas, when used in the right amount, this is a great strength, but it's being overused when it leads to a four-year-old screaming hysterically because she can't say the word "taquito."
Fortunately, I can use my son's other strengths to help him work through this problem. He also has strength when it comes to empathy, so I can encourage him to use that strength to imagine how his sister feels when he scolds her for doing her best. We're still focusing on his strengths, but we're deciding which strength to use to solve the problem overuse of a different one caused.
Kids who underuse a strength are also at risk for behavioral issues. All of us want to do something that makes us feel alive regularly. If children aren't able to do that, they are going to act out. My daughter is strong in teamwork, and she also loves to communicate. She wants and needs to be around peers frequently to feel like she's thriving. I've never had to encourage her to play with someone at the park. She seeks out any and every person in her vicinity. This explains why after a few days stuck in the house due to illness or friends having to cancel plans, she has problems. Finding a way for her to use this strength as soon as possible will alleviate the issue, and in the meantime I can ask her to exercise her strength in patience.
Many parents shy away from constantly pointing out their kids' strong points because it seems a little like a praise-for-no-reason thing to do. A friend who actually has an easy time focusing on her children's strengths worries that she may be raising future narcissists. Fortunately, Waters has words of encouragement. It's all about approach.
Strengths don't make kids special, and parents should point out that everyone has strengths. Since we all bring our unique strengths to the table, kids should be encouraged to look for strengths in others, something that will likely come easier for kids raised by parents who point out strengths in them. Kids will also be able to use their strengths for the sake of others. When deciding on a life path, children who are parented using the strength-based model will know what their strong points are, and this will help them impact the world using the strengths they've been aware of for most of their lives.
Waters even believes that strength-based parenting encourages self-compassion in children, a much-coveted skill that is proving more important than self-esteem. Self-compassion allows children to mindfully be kind to themselves when they make a mistake instead of living in shame or guilt. If children know they have strengths, they can give themselves grace when areas they aren't strong in cause them problems. It keeps kids from believing that when they fail it's because they are irredeemably flawed humans who have nothing positive to bring to the table.
Using the strength-based parenting approach doesn't mean ignoring weaknesses. By virtue of identifying strengths, kids are going to realize they also have weaknesses, and that's okay. Shuntai Walker, MA, LPC says, "it is ok to be aware of weakness but the focus should be on cultivating their strengths." We're not raising kids who think they are perfect. Strength-based parenting means raising kids who know what their strong points are and how to use them to help themselves and others. It's a form of positive parenting that helps us encourage our children while also creating positive interactions that strengthen our relationships with them.