Why Focusing on What's "Right" is Positive Psychology's Best Parenting Strength

March 4, 2023

In her parenting book The Strength Switch, Lea Waters looks at parenting through the lens of strengths. Strengths-based parenting is a technique that encourages you to see what’s “right” about your children. Discovering and fostering their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses and fixing their areas of detriment is a somewhat novel approach. But are we doing children a disservice by turning a blind-eye to some aspects while embracing others?

What defines a strength?

It’s important to be clear on what Professor Waters defines as a strength. Strengths need three elements:

  1. Performance (being good at something)
  2. Energy (felling good while doing it)
  3. High use (choosing to do it regularly)

Based on this definition, being good at something alone doesn’t mean it’s a strength. When I was a child I was a gifted dancer and a competitive gymnast. Dance was something I did on the beach, in the grocery store, and in the kitchen. Even after three hours of ballet I would still want more. Gymnastics on the other hand was something I was talented at. I was naturally strong and flexible, and I learned knew tricks and routines with ease. It took me quite few years of actively pursuing both dance and gymnastics to choose dance. One day I recognized that I really never enjoyed gymnastics despite my skill. Looking through Professor Waters criterion, dance was a strength for me and gymnastics was not.

Strengths Change as a Child Grows

Different strengths present at different times child development. In the early years Waters recommends parents let children develop passions by providing low-pressure opportunities of discovery- let them play! In the middle years, starting at pre- adolescence the role of the parent changes. During these years providing opportunities and resources to support the development of areas of identified strength is what helps children learn how to use their strength. This is the busiest time for most parents where children prepare for the demands of adulthood but don’t have adequately formed brains to make good decisions and make plans for their future. We also see some strengths pruned in this phase which can be hard on a parent who has enjoyed the relationships with other parents at a specific activity. As a parent your instinct might be to encourage your child to keep going at a tennis or soccer but the important thing to do in these situations is to help your child decide and then support their decision. In late adolescence the brain development allows teens to use their strengths more consistently and appropriately. This is the beginning of high performance becoming part of your child’s unique identity. These years are where kids reap the rewards of their areas of strength.

Helping Avoid Strength Distractions

As parents we want to help our children, but often. in the age of the helicopter-parent, helping turns into doing it for them. You know you are off track in your parenting if you’ve become more of a coach/agent/manager than a mom or dad. If you see yourself falling into this trap, using your desire to help in a better way will help you to avoid a major parenting pitfall. Helping your child stay focused without becoming a taskmaster means teaching them to:

  • Recognize the difference between useful stress and dangerous levels of stress
  • See emotions as a useful part of our physiology- encourage your kids to feel them and express them
  • Make their own decisions and choices
  • Resist impulses that are distracting or detrimental

What You Focus on Matters

Parenting through strengths becomes essential when you have a child who has an area of challenge. I have four children, one with severe autism and one with dyslexia. If I spend all my parenting time focusing on the things my daughter with autism and son with dyslexia need help with I might think I am helping them to overcome their greatest challenges. But what am I missing? My son is fabulously creative in design and art, he has a brilliant memory and a gift for spotting details that most people don’t notice. My daughter has a keen sense of smell, a memory for music, and she enjoys nature. When I spend regular time encouraging them to use their strengths they can see themselves as successful, vital, individuals. This positivity provides a foundation that protects them from the epidemic of anxiety and depression that is challenging our youth. Knowing their strengths fosters resilience, optimism and a sense of achievement. To learn more about strengths-based parenting, I recommend looking at Dr. Water’s work and familiarizing yourself with another type of strengths, the VIA character strengths. Parenting can be both more difficult than you ever imagined and more rewarding. If you are struggling, reach out. Form a parenting book club and maybe spend a little time thinking about YOUR strengths too!

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