She was working as a very successful organisational psychologist in the corporate world when she met Martin Seligman at the World Congress of Positive Psychology. As a parent and qualified psychologist with an interest in positive psychology, Seligman suggested that Waters was in a good position to do some research on the strength-based approach for parents.
After careful consideration, Waters realised that bringing strength principles into families’ lives was something she had to do. “Strength-based parenting (SBP) is an approach to parenting that focuses first on your child’s strengths – their talents, positive qualities, what your child does well and their good behaviour – before attending to their faults and shortcomings” says Waters. “Instead of putting the bulk of your attention on fixing what’s wrong with your kids (which brings them up to scratch) it’s about switching your focus to amplifying what’s right with your kids (which brings out their uniqueness)”.
In her research, Waters found that if a parent is only focusing on weaknesses this sends a message to the child that they are ‘faulty and need to be fixed’, it zaps their confidence, makes them feel like they are not good enough and can diminish the bond between a parent and child. It also, ironically, may make the child less receptive or open to fixing their weaknesses because they’ll naturally become defensive to protect themselves against their parents’ criticism. “When you come from the position that your child has strengths you’ll find you’re able to talk more openly to your son or daughter about their downsides because they’ll know you see the good in them and will therefore be less defensive when it comes to working together to overcome weaknesses” says Waters.
One of the misconceptions of strength-based parenting is that it will lead to narcissism. If you have a teenager who thinks they know everything, or a toddler that is learning about boundaries, it can seem problematic to not correct behaviour. “Strength-based parenting isn’t about lavishing kids with the false and excessive praise that leads to big-headed narcissism. It’s about real praise based on your child’s actual strengths”, says Waters. “Since none of us is so perfect that we’re showing our strengths all the time, rest assured you won’t fall into a trap of excessive praise. There’s no risk of creating a self-involved child who thinks she’s the only special one in the world. If anything, SBP drives home the point that our strengths make us unique, but they don’t make us special—because everyone has strengths. There’s actually nothing special about having strengths. What is special is how we learn to use them in ways that are good for us and for others. That’s what strength-based parents helps their kids do”.
Waters is also quick to point out that SBP doesn’t mean you can’t give advice or focus on improvement. Instead it shifts the focus from advice on weaknesses to advice on strengths – it challenges the assumption that “areas for improvement” are always about weakness. “We can improve our kids strengths too and this is what helps them to thrive. So, one way to break the cycle of criticism is to intentionally look for your kids strengths, understand more about the way their strengths work, praise those strengths and look for way the strengths can be improved. This will help to shift the ratio of advice given about weakness versus advice given about strengths,” says Waters. Unfortunately strength-based parenting isn’t always a natural response. Psychologist have identified four thinking processes wired into our brain that causes us to focus on the negative including selective attention, negativity bias, projection and binary thinking. Waters recommends that a good way to incorporate strength-based principles is to spot strengths in action and point out to your kids when you see them using their strengths in the moment. You can also have conversations with kids about how they feel when they are using their strengths. “Because strengths are things we perform well and get energy from, kids will learn to connect their strengths with positive feelings and positive internal feedback, and this will motivate them to seek out opportunities to use their strengths more often”.
Professor Waters shares her advice on how to motivate a child who doesn’t put effort into anything but computer games:
I’d do some detective work about what the child is finding motivating about the computer games. Games allow kids to learn new skills, be challenged, seek to get to the next level and, in some games, be social and be part of a team. Talk to your kids about their games and find out what they enjoy. This does a few things:
1) You can see what the motivating factors about the game and then you create those motivating factors in other areas of the child’s life. When my kids were younger I used to create chores around different levels because my kids liked getting to the next level in their games (it gave them a sense of mastery and achievement).
2) It shows your child that you are interested in their world and that you want to learn more about what they like which then builds up a positive relationship and this may help them to be motivated to do other things with you, aside from computer games.
Dr Lea Waters is the author of The Strength Switch [Penguin Random House Australia, $35].