“We’ve all grown up with the impression that a strength is something you’re good at. But that’s only part of the story.”
READ ON TO DISCOVER:
Why you can’t detect your own best strengths
The crucial difference between a skill and a strength
How to resolve your child’s behavior problems
Lea Waters is an Australian academic, researcher, psychologist, author, and speaker who specializes in positive education, parenting, and organizations. She recently joined University of Pennsylvania psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman on the Psychology Podcast to discuss the incredible advantages of strength-based parenting.
Scott: You are correcting this negativity bias that exists in parenting. Where did that negativity bias come from? Why has it been so pervasive?
Lea: I think there’s two reasons. One has to do with the biology of our brain, and one has to do with our society and the way that we are being socialized to understand processes like development and improvement.
Starting with the biology of the brain, neuroscientists have now shown that we have this in-built negativity bias, whereby our brains pay attention to the negative things in our environment more quickly than the positive things.
This is an important feature of our brain, because it gives us a survival advantage and alerts us to potential harm. It stops us from stepping out onto the street, because we’ve got this gut instinct that maybe a car’s about to come around the corner.
[But] it’s not the best feature of our brain when it comes to having a positive relationship with our children, because our brain is wired to first look for problems. A lot of what I do in [The Strength Switch] is a range of different exercises for parents and kids to counteract that negativity bias. In the end, our brains are pattern-detecting organs, so it’s just about repatterning our brain to look first for the positives before the negatives.
In addition to the biology of our brain, there’s an overlay of society in terms of why we parent more by correcting the weaknesses in our children than by amplifying the strengths in our children. If you think about our parents’ generation, there was this default assumption that improvement is about correcting weakness. It’s about fixing what’s wrong with us.
One of the biggest messages that positive psychology has given us is to expand our understanding of “improvement” and “growth.” Previously, we wouldn’t think about improvement in terms of strengths, because we think, “Well, it’s already strong—there’s no need to improve that.” We put all of our emphasis on fixing up our weaknesses. That’s the way we’ve been parented, and I think that’s a factor in why we as parents tend to go first for fixing what’s wrong with our children before we look for amplifying what’s right.
Scott: That makes a lot of sense. Also, it’s easier to see overt signs of things that are wrong than to see latent potential, but that doesn’t mean that latent potential isn’t equally important. What are things that parents can do to see that? You can’t bring out things that you haven’t identified first, right?
Lea: That’s right. We’ve all grown up with the impression that a strength is something you’re good at. But that’s only part of the story. A strength is something that we perform well, we are energized when we’re doing it, and we’re self-motivated to do it.
“It’s easier to see overt signs of things that are wrong than to see latent potential, but that doesn’t mean that latent potential isn’t equally important.”
If we’re only looking for the things that our children are good at, we’re missing a whole range of strengths that our children have. You might have a child who’s performing well in piano, for example, but is clearly not energized. You have to keep nagging them to practice, they’re not self-motivated. And in positive psychology, we would say that’s not a true strength. It’s a skill, but not a strength.
The first thing as a parent is to start observing your child’s actions, and look for signs of high performance, meaning that the child is performing better than their peers, or has a quick learning and growth curve in a particular skill. You’re also looking for the things that energize your child. When your child has a lot of energy for a particular task, you can see it in their body language. You can see it in their facial expression, you can hear it in their voice. They speed up in the way they talk, they’re super excited about a particular thing.
Then look for what is self-motivating. Look at what they’re choosing to do without you having to direct them. To use an example of my own, my ten-year-old daughter, Emily, is very creative, very artistic. She will sit and watch TV, but almost always have pencils in her hand. She’ll be doodling and drawing and creating a little masterpiece as she’s sitting there, even in her downtime. As a parent, you’re starting to wonder, what is the strength that sits underneath that behavior?
Scott: All of us, I don’t care who we are, could use a parent in our lives. Do you know what I mean? It doesn’t have to be a biological parent—it could be a relationship partner, it could be a good friend. Someone who care about bringing out [our strengths, because] we can’t always see it in ourselves.
Lea: I love that idea. As you say, a lot of us have strength blindness, because strengths are partly nature and partly nurture. Something that you have a natural aptitude for, because you’re born with it and you’ve naturally been good at it most of your life, you start to take it for granted. It becomes invisible to you. You don’t see it as a strength in yourself.
One of my friends is an amazing cook. She came over to my house on the weekend, opened up my fridge, and pulled out a whole range of things that I would never have thought to put together in a million years, and she whipped up this amazing meal. I’m sitting there saying, “That’s amazing. How do you do that?” But she doesn’t see that that’s something she’s good at, that’s something she has a strength for. She has blindness towards that, whereas I see it really clearly.
“We’ve all grown up with the impression that a strength is something you’re good at. But that’s only part of the story.”
[Personality] surveys are one way of identifying your strengths, but [you can also] just be tuned into yourself, being mindful of, “When are my energy levels high? When am I having a fast learning curve? When am I having a deep sense of flow and enjoyment in what I’m doing?” That’s much more about your own introspection and being mindful of the clues, the signals for our strengths. That’s a big piece in the book for parents—how to engage in strength-spotting, so they start to see the strengths, the positive qualities in their own children.
This is why I called the book The Strength Switch. It’s about switching or shifting from spending more time fixing the weaknesses in our children to spending more time identifying and amplifying [their] strengths. It’s to ask yourself, “Does my child have a strength that I can use to address the weakness?”
I’ll give you a bit of a metaphor. A friend of mine is a remedial massage therapist who works with elite athletes, helping them with injury management. When I was talking to her many years ago about the strength-based approach, and particularly about addressing a weakness by using a strength, she said, “Lea, when I do remedial massage work with these athletes, I never start with the weak tissue. I never go straight for the injury. I always start treatment by working on the strong, healthy tissue surrounding the injured or weak tissue.”
She said, “If I go straight for the injured tissue, the muscle seizes up, and I’m unable to do the therapeutic deep tissue work. [So] I always start by working with the healthy tissue, and then I slowly massage into the weak or injured tissue.”
I found that to be a really useful parallel for what we do as parents. If we always start with the weakness in our children, their muscle is going to seize up [so to speak]. They’re going to become defensive, they’re going to block us. We do it as adults too. We all have our weaknesses, and if we feel like someone is pointing it out to us, we become defensive. We tune out.
One of the questions we can ask ourselves as parents is, “Does my child have a strength that they can use to help overcome [a weakness]?” One of the examples I use in the book, again, is with my daughter, Emily. She’s got amazing strengths, but one of her weaknesses is that she gets impatient in the classroom. If she doesn’t feel like the teacher is going fast enough for her, she gets impatient, she tunes out. As parents, we haven’t had much success in reducing her impatience.
What we’ve done instead is say, “What is her best strength that we can use to help her with this weakness of impatience?” One of her strengths is that she’s highly curious, so when she gets impatient with the teacher, we’re teaching her to start asking questions, even if she’s just asking inside her own head. When we draw on her curiosity, that softens the impatience so she’s able to move forward.
“Something that you have a natural aptitude for, because you’re born with it and you’ve naturally been good at it most of your life, you start to take it for granted. It becomes invisible to you.”
Scott: Tell me more about your framework that considers problematic behaviors as resulting from both the overuse and underuse of strengths.
Lea: It’s easier to take a strength-based approach when your kids are behaving well, and everyone’s happy, and life is rainbows and sunshine. Of course, we all know that’s not the reality of parenting. The question is, how do you take a strength-based approach when you’re facing difficulties, when your children are having behavior problems, or they have obvious weaknesses?
I’ve been really influenced by the work of the humanistic psychologists, Maslow and Erikson. Their philosophy is that every one of us is motivated to evolve and develop. And so as a parent, when we see problem behavior, when we see weaknesses, when we see our kids being naughty or misbehaving, instead of immediately thinking “Why is my kid always doing this? There’s some fault or flaw in them,” [we can instead] think, “Well, my child is programmed to be on this positive developmental trajectory. If the behavior is wrong, then maybe it has to do with strengths being blocked, or them not knowing how to apply their strengths appropriately.”
I’ll give you an example. My husband is very humorous. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with him. But when he was in school, he had a lot of trouble with the teachers because he was overplaying his humor. He didn’t know when it was appropriate to tone things down a bit, and the teachers were interpreting his behavior as being deliberately disruptive.
Scott: That sounds like me—I was one of those problem children. A way of acting out was being the class clown, but no one saw the strength there. They just saw a learning disability.
Lea: Humor brings forward so many positive qualities in people, but [with my husband], it was being overused. And so as a parent, rather than thinking, “My child is naughty,” think, “This is a great quality, but I need to teach my child when to use humor, when it’s appropriate, and when they need to dial it down a little bit and maybe bring a different strength forward. Bring curiosity forward, for example, rather than humor.”
Scott: That makes so much sense. Where’s the ethical dimension in the strength-based approach?
Lea: There are a couple of levels to strengths. The first is self-awareness and self-compassion, and knowing who you truly are.
The second layer is that real contribution piece—“What do I know about my strengths, and how can I use them to make others’ lives better?” That’s where compassion comes in. Speaking for myself, I only got connected to my strengths in my early 30’s, and that really changed my life trajectory. I wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation with you now if I hadn’t learned what my strengths were and how could I use them to help others. That’s what the book is all about—me contributing those strengths to as many parents and families as I can to make them happy, loving, warm families who are building brilliant, optimistic children.
These are the children who will grow up to lead our society, and if we bring [these ideas] to families now, they’ll be leading it from a strength-based perspective.