“What are your child’s strengths?” my daughter’s teacher asked at our parent-teacher meeting. Speaking to friends afterwards, several told me they were stumped by the question and couldn’t think of anything to say.
It’s not that these children don’t have strengths, it’s that their parents don’t notice them to the point where they can name them on the spot.
Part of the reason for this is that many people parent how we were parented and a common style of the past was “corrective”. Parents saw their main task as fixing weaknesses that they presumed would prevent their children from becoming successful adults.
Another reason that parents may not notice their children’s strengths is that we are often so conditioned to look out for warning signs that our child is falling behind we neglect to notice the things that they’re good, even great, at.
Professor Lea Waters, who is an expert in positive psychology at the University of Melbourne, says that our brains are wired to see problems and threats.
“At a basic biological level, even though we love our children, our brains are wired to avoid what’s going wrong before we notice what’s going right,” says Professor Waters who is the author of The Strength Switch.
This means we are likely to focus on the subjects our children are struggling with at school, rather than what they excel at. Or, we may reprimand them for rudeness, never noticing — much less commenting upon — when they’re being polite.
This negative perspective can affect the way our children perceive and feel about themselves. If parents focus too much on what’s wrong with their children rather than recognising and nurturing their child’s unique gifts and talents they may grow up feeling constantly inadequate.
Professor Waters, who advocates a parenting approach called “strength-based parenting”, says that trying to help our children by focusing on their weaknesses can be counterproductive.
“We mistakenly believe that the way to make our kids optimistic and resilient is to weed out all their weaknesses,” says Professor Waters. “Strength based science shows the opposite is true. It tells us to turn the bulk of our attention to expanding their strengths rather than reducing their weaknesses.”
While focusing on children’s strengths might sound lovely in theory, does it work in practice? If your kid is struggling to read, for example, do you have the luxury of focusing on the positives?
“It’s not about ignoring the fact that they can’t read,” says Professor Waters. “It’s about giving them help where they need it, but also seeing that one fault within the larger kaleidoscope of your child.”
“When a child is not defining themselves by what’s missing, they’re able to say, ‘Well, I know I’m not a good reader and I’m getting extra help with that, but I am a good basketballer or I’m creative, or I can figure out computers easily.”
Even though it sounds counterintuitive, focusing on your child’s strengths will help you to better address your child’s weaknesses, she says.
“If your child feels like all you’re doing is worrying about what they are not good at then naturally they’re going to get defensive. Every time you try to talk about their problem with reading they’re going to feel bad about themselves and less able to work on their weakness.”
The good news is that Professor Waters has found that with a shift in focus, parents are able to identify their children’s strengths.
How do you go about identifying your child’s strengths? Professor Waters’ advice is to simply ask them. What do they love to do? What excites them? What do they feel passionate about? Also, simply observe your children with an eye out for what they do well.
The added bonus of focusing on strengths is that it makes our job as parents a little easier — not to mention more fun. With the constant pressure to be perfect parents, raising perfect children, it’s so easy for us to get caught up on all the aspects of parenting at which we think we are failing.
But when we focus on our children’s strengths and see the beautiful, unique individuals that we are raising we will realise that we’re actually doing a fine job after all.