Imagine this: You see your child made four As and one D on their report card. Do your eyes skim over those excellent grades and immediately focus on the D?
You’re not alone. People are programmed to notice the bad first. It’s how our earliest ancestors survived, always on the alert for signs of danger. Even though we no longer have to be on the constant lookout for trouble, we still lean toward negativity. And this can extend into our parenting.
Lea Waters, a professor of positive psychology at the University of Melbourne in Australia, wants parents to shift that instinct. Paying attention to and boosting a child’s strengths, rather than focusing on the negative, she says, can lead them to greater optimism, resiliency and success. She explores this topic in her new book, “The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish.”
We spoke with Waters to learn more.
The Washington Post: Why did you decide to write this book?
Lea Waters: I’ve been a psychologist in the field of positivity for over two decades. What turned my interest to how do we apply this to a parent was myself becoming a parent. My son is 14½ and my daughter is 10. I was doing a lot of work as a psychologist and applying this to young people and to corporations. When I became a parent myself, I started to bring this home because I was researching the effects of well-being and performance. I realized this is working well with my two children, and I wanted to encourage other parents to take this approach.
WP: What makes your book different from other parenting books?
LW: I read so many parenting books over my time as being a mum, and most are about what the parent does to the child. Where this is different is, one, the focus is on your child and their inner resources, talents and strengths. Those are the compasses you use to engage your parenting approach. Two, when you take a strength-based approach, it’s not just amplifying the strength in your kids. It’s also about building the strength in yourself. It has a lovely focus on both the child and parent.
WP: What makes this a powerful parenting tool?
LW: Our brains have this negative bias. Whether we want to or not, we spend more time in fix-it mode with our kids. We spend more time correcting what is wrong — zeroing in on weak spots, overcoming their faults and what is lacking in them. This tool is powerful because as the title suggests, we are switching our focus from what is missing in our kids to focusing on their strengths and their qualities, talents, skills — positive aspects of their personality.
This helps because you are working with something that is already there. It changes the dynamic between the parent and the child from the child always feeling like “My parents always see the bad, always saying no, always saying stop doing that” to “My parents are seeing the good in me first and foremost.”
Because you are focusing on the strength, it opens up the door to have more frequent, more constructive conversations about their weaknesses because the child doesn’t feel defensive.
WP: What difference can this make in a child’s life?
LW: A lot of research shows it helps the child reach their full potential, yields well-being, and creates a more trusting and positive bond between the parent and the child.
WP: What difference can this make in a parent’s life?
LW: If the bulk of your attention is on fixing the weak spots and flaws and what’s wrong with your child, the best that can happen is to eliminate a weakness. So you are bringing the child from the lowest baseline to kind of average. If instead you switch your focus and invest more in building up your child’s strength, you are working with your child at their best.
WP: Do some parents think that if they don’t fix their kids’ weaknesses, then they won’t be successful?
LW: Yes. We fix our kids’ weaknesses from a place of love. We think we are doing the right thing. We don’t want those weaknesses to end up limiting our child. We say we will fix it, but we don’t ask ourselves in the long term if it’s truly going to be a weakness. In strength-based parenting, we would say, okay, I don’t want my kid to be limited when they grow up, but rather than plugging a hole, how about if the child can use their strengths to overcome their weaknesses.
WP: Should we ignore weaknesses?
LW: No, absolutely not. It’s not an either-or approach. You focus first on the strength before you address the weakness.
WP: In your book, you mention how parents react when they see a child’s report card that has four As and one D.
LW: In theory, that one D should occupy about 20 percent of the conversation. In practice, we know it is more like 80 percent. It gets back to thinking our job is to fix things.
We wouldn’t say to ignore the D. We would ask the parent, “What is the percentage of focus you put on the D and on the As?” Instead of focusing on what went wrong, let’s zoom in on the As and say what went right here. What was it about your study practice, your efforts, your textbook, your teacher that helped you to have the high level of performance. When you break that down, you can transfer some of that to where the student didn’t do as well.
WP: What is the “strength switch”?
LW: The strength switch is a mental tool. Those moments of frustration, tension, stress, that’s where we find ourselves as parents getting into the loop of nagging, criticizing, negativity. I encourage parents to picture a light switch inside of their head and switch that on. When the light is off, things are dark, you are functioning negatively. When you imagine yourself flicking on the light, it is like a mental wake-me-up.
WP: That might be hard to do in moments of stress.
LW: Start small. Use the strength switch on weekends, when your energy is not taxed, in the moments where you are not stressed out, when you have a little issue with your kids before it becomes a big issue. It’s about training your brain to learn how to quickly flick the “on” switch. The more you practice, the more you can do it.
WP: What is “strength spotting”?
LW: To become a bit of a detective and look at your child’s behavior, and when you see good behavior or high performance yourself, what is the strength that sits underneath. Strengths have three elements. We think of strengths as things we are good at — that is true but only partly right. You are looking for high performance, high energy and high use. The next step is to build the strength up — by role-modeling it yourself, getting the right equipment or training or practice, introducing new experiences. You see the strength and then build on that.
WP: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
LW: I would hope that parents gain more confidence and more happiness and kids have a greater sense of being more concretely connected to their own strengths so they can use those to build optimism, spot opportunities, achieve the best in life. But also and most importantly, when life throws a curveball, they’ve got these inner resources to bounce back from life’s challenges.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.