When will he ever learn? That was my thought as I arrived home and saw that my eight-year-old son Nick had failed to put away his new bicycle… again. The day before, I’d snapped: “I’m tired of reminding you about this!” Then, seeing his welcoming smile fade, I’d felt like a terrible parent.
Why is it so hard to control the urge to criticize our children — and is there a better way? I’m constantly asked these questions at my parent talks. The culprit is ancient brain wiring — and yes, there is a better way, reported theguardian.com.
We evolved to have a ‘negativity bias’, zeroing in on what’s wrong as a way to protect ourselves and our tribe. 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.
My research has shown we can override this impulse and implement a far more powerful, positive strategy called ‘strength-based parenting’ that helps children improve by focusing on their strengths.
We have evolved with a ‘negativity bias’, zeroing in on what’s wrong as a way to protect ourselves
A strength isn’t just something your child is good at. Psychologists have defined three characteristics of a strength: Your child does it well (high performance), happily (high energy) and often (high use). Strengths can be talent-based, such as sports or art, or character-based, such as humor or kindness.
More and more schools are teaching strengths. A study of more than 300 secondary school students in the UK, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2011, found teens who were taught about their strengths had significantly higher life satisfaction than their peers who did not. Similar results have been found in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China.
Parents benefit, too. In one of my studies, published in the International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, parents who undertook a strength-based parenting course were happier and more confident about their parenting skills. Learning to consistently see their child’s strengths allowed them to find the sweet spots where their kids could thrive.
What I call the ‘strength switch’ is a mental tool that helps you see your child’s strengths more clearly. Picture a light switch inside your head. 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.
In discipline situations, the switch will help you suggest how your child could handle things using a strength they already have.
In my case, I commented on how Nick had used his good organizational skills to put his other belongings away after school. He felt good about himself — and I got the bike put away.
Simply notice one strength in your child per week and have a conversation together about it. When challenges arise, you’ll find you can more easily shift out of fix-it mode.
Another way is to incorporate strengths into the questions you ask your children. When your child has a big project or event coming up, you could ask them: “What strengths do you have to help you with this?”
Or if they’ve had a fight with a friend: “What strengths do you think were missing that may have led to the fight? What strengths will help you make-up?”
Strength-based parenting can help your children tune into what is best about them and others, and thus show us all how to shine.
*Professor Lea Waters is president elect of the International Positive Psychology Association and Gerry Higgins Chair in Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne.