by Dr. Waters
My heart sank as I pulled into the driveway. For what seemed like the millionth time, my 8-year-old son, Nick, had left his new bike by the front door instead of putting it away. Just the day before, I’d snapped at him: “You need to put your bike where it belongs. I’m getting tired of reminding you!” Smiling and happy to see me just a moment before, he now looked downcast. I felt like a horrible parent.
Why do we zoom in on our children’s faults and find it so hard to resist the urge to criticize?
Blame it on our brains. Our “negativity bias,” an ancient survival mechanism. The good news is that by learning how to shift our focus to our child’s strengths, we can override the negativity bias. A strength is more than just something your child is good at. Psychologists define a strength as something your child does well, happily and often. These range from talents in sports, music, art and communication, to character traits such as grit, curiosity, courage, humor and kindness.
Research has shown that focusing on strengths encourages children to be happy and active. A 2009 study of more than 300 middle-school students in the U.S. found that teens who undertook 25 lessons on strengths had significantly higher engagement and enjoyment at school. They also had better social skills than their peers who didn’t go through the program.
In my own research, children and teenagers with parents who focus on strengths are less stressed and better at handling friendship issues and meeting homework deadlines. They also get better grades. Parents benefit, too. In one of my studies, 137 parents were split into two groups. One took a three-week course that taught them to focus on their children’s strengths, while a control group continued to parent as usual. Those who went through the training were happier and more confident about their parenting skills after the course compared with their pre-course levels.
MORE ON PARENTING
Focusing on strengths doesn’t mean ignoring problems or lavishing children with excessive praise. It shows them how to use what they’re good at to work on what they’re not so good at. To shift gears, just choose a strength your child already has and suggest how he or she could use it to handle the situation.
In my case, I remembered Nick’s good organizational skills. I commented on how he’d used them to put his other belongings away after school. I asked him to use those skills now and in the future to put his bike where it belonged. Result? He felt good about himself—and I got the bike put away. A father I’ve worked with helped his athletic son channel his natural competitive spirit into a friendly contest to “win” at finishing homework instead of having the same old battle about lack of discipline.
How to start? Simply notice one strength in your child each week and have a conversation together about it. When challenges arise, you will find that you can more easily shift out of fix-it mode and into strength focus.
Negativity bias helps us to survive, but our strengths help us to thrive. Showing our children how to harness them is the best tool for success that we can give them.