Spelling. Their left kicking foot. Forgetting their assignments at school. If I had a nickel for every time I talk to my kids about something they have to “work on,” I’d probably have enough money to fund a private tutor for just about every school subject and extracurricular endeavor I fret they’re struggling with. But a compelling new read by an internationally renowned child psychologist has convinced me that such an investment would be a huge mistake. Professor Lea Waters, Ph.D, who leads positive psychology programs at the University of Melbourne and University of Michigan, says that by resisting to impulse to help our kids with their weaknesses and instead give them opportunities to do more of what they’re naturally good at, kids—and us!—will be better able to thrive.
Discussing her new book The Strength Switch with The Guardian newspaper, Dr. Waters explains the evolutionary reason why we parents, and often our children themselves, seem to focus our time and energy on patching up shortcomings. “We have evolved with a ‘negativity bias,’ zeroing in on what’s wrong as a way to protect ourselves and our tribe,” she says. “Add to this the constant social pressure to raise perfectly behaved, accomplished kids, and many parents feel as if they have to be in “fix-it” mode all the time.”
But being a slow runner, say, no longer portends eminent demise; even being a sloppy speller won’t sink you. In our modern, diverse society, there are fewer personal skills that are absolutely “essential,” and a wider range of traits that can be considered assets. Moreover, Waters’ research in the International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology and other peer reviewed publications has shown that parents who were trained to regularly recognize and point out their kids’ strengths allowed them to identify programs—from after school activities to at-home chores—that made the children happier and more successful all-around. Waters calls it “flipping the strength switch”: shifting from talking mostly about what kids need to improve on to what they have the best chance, with continued hard work, to excel in.
So, what are some practical ways to make this shift? It can be hard, especially when there are some things kids have to do that they might struggle with, from certain required school subjects to universally acknowledged life skills, like swimming or keeping their belongings organized. When it comes to tricky schoolwork, Dr. Waters counsels parents to suggest that kids think about how their strengths can help them with the things they struggle with. Let’s say they have trouble grasping, say, long division; you can explore how another strong trait—say, neat handwriting—can help make the process easier. If they struggle with public speaking, you might point out how they might call on their funny sense of humor to ease them through a scary moment.
“Picture a light switch inside your head,” she explained to The Guardian. “When the light is on you look for the strengths in your child. When it is off, your negativity bias is operating. The brain is a pattern detecting organ, so the more you flick the switch, the more you train your brain to look for positive patterns and so over-ride the negativity bias.”
This can work with discipline, too. Dr. Waters uses an example of how her son kept forgetting to put his new bike away, and it was driving everyone crazy. She started commented regularly on how Nick had used his good organizational skills to put his other belongings away after school. Feeling pride about this skill, her son began to see how his carelessness with his bike didn’t jibe with that strong sense of identity, and the bike wound up where it belonged from then on.
What do you think—have you noticed that your kids step up when they’re boosted up? Are you brave enough to not worry about something they’re just plain lousy at? It’s definitely something I need to, ahem, work on.
Photo credit: Aikawake via Flickr