A few months after we refinished our deck, I found my 5-year-old, Stuart, out there kneeling alongside a long line of black duct tape. He had secured Post-it notes to the tape by hammering in thumbtacks every few feet. The twine that he’d looped around the tacks and through several railing posts didn’t bother me too much, but the upended toolbox and streaks of floorboard that were now missing paint?
I almost said, “Why do you always have to get your paws into everything? Will you never think before jumping into a harebrained scheme?” But I didn’t, because I’d recently discovered a new approach known as strength-based parenting.
This sounds fancy and complicated, but it boils down to one principle: Focus on what your kids are doing right, says Australian psychologist Lea Waters, Ph.D., author of The Strength Switch. Research has found that emphasizing children’s strengths increases their likelihood of being healthy, happy, and engaged in school. Years later, the benefits include a lower risk of depression, better work performance, and even being happily married.
So when I discovered my son’s handiwork that day, I forced myself to change the story in my head from “He is meddlesome and impetuous” to “He is curious and brimming with initiative.” Stuart looked up at me warily. I smiled and said, “Well, that’s inventive. Next time, ask first.” He beamed, relieved that I hadn’t freaked out about the mess. Emphasizing kids’ strengths isn’t about being permissive or lavishing your children with praise, though. Here’s some advice on how you can make this glass-half full mindset work for you.
There’s a myth that we all need to be well-rounded, says Mary Reckmeyer, Ph.D., coauthor of Strengths Based Parenting. And that makes many parents view their children as improvement projects with weaknesses that need shoring up. Kids often hear a drumbeat of constructive criticism like the one that thumped throughout my childhood: “Too sensitive, too bossy, too dramatic.”
Instead, you should reassure your child that weaknesses are normal, and as John Legend would put it, we can be perfect in our imperfections. By tailoring your feedback to his strengths, you’ll promote an important positive feedback loop: When he does a good job at something, he gets a hit of satisfaction that encourages him to do it more. That practice makes him even better, starting the cycle again, and it boosts his self-esteem. Feeling both capable and valuable is the key to being resilient in the face of future challenges.
As it turns out, not any talent, skill, or interest counts as a strength. There are “learned behaviors” that we do simply because we have to. My 8-year-old daughter, Vivienne, reliably puts things back where they belong, but she doesn’t get pleasure from organizing like my 3-year-old, Josephine, who lines her Calico Critters up by species and size. To identify a true strength, answer these questions: Does my child enjoy doing it? Is she good at it? Does she choose to do it? Only something that checks all these boxes is a true strength, says Dr. Waters.
With young children, one tip-off is when your kid becomes so engrossed in something that she loses track of what’s going on around her. Another trick for sussing out strengths in school-age children is to offer a choice of chores and then pay attention, suggests Jenifer Fox, head of The Delta School, in Wilson, Arkansas, and author of Your Child’s Strengths. Kids who like to fold things, for example, tend to naturally understand how shapes fit together, which is a strength shared by architects and pool players.
When Stuart jumped at the chance to drag a light bag of trash to the curb, poking around inside the bins for ten minutes before returning, I knew that Fox was onto something, but I had no idea what to call the strength I saw. I found the word I was looking for on the Clifton Youth StrengthsExplorer assessment: “Discoverer” describes my son’s primary strength perfectly. There is also a “Strengths Library” on Dr. Waters’s website that contains more than 100 different strengths that scientists have been able to measure, including creativity, love of learning, courage, self-control, a sense of humor, open-mindedness, and kindness.
When you identify one of your child’s strengths, point it out to him, and look for opportunities to help him to build more muscle. In fact, as he starts the school year, you can encourage him to invest most of his energy in his strengths, and address his weaknesses only enough to get them out of the way.
Dr. Reckmeyer uses penmanship as an example: When a child struggles with handwriting, he can just aim for legibility. Why? Research has shown that maximizing strengths can produce bigger gains than pulling up weaknesses. The life of a child who focuses on his strengths won’t just be more productive, it will also be more fulfilling, since he will be more likely to choose a career and hobbies that produce “a feeling of joy and wonder,” Fox notes.
I helped my kids learn to pay attention to which activities drain them and which invigorate them by reading Dr. Reckmeyer’s picture book How Full Is Your Bucket? For Kids. Now, instead of asking them, “How was school today?” I’ll often say, “What strengths did you use?”
When I reframed The Great Deck Debacle as one of Stuart’s first engineering triumphs, I was using a parenting tool that Dr. Waters calls the strength switch. If your kid does something delightful, it’s not hard to identify which strength is at work. The trick is to stop and ask yourself the same thing when your child’s actions are disappointing. Then you can handle the problematic behavior by affirming rather than disparaging her character.
Take my daughter Vivienne, for example. All in one breath, she’ll say, “Mommy, can we watch a movie today? I can pick one. Or maybe we can vote. I’ll go get three now. Can we, Mommy, can we?” Rather than telling her how obnoxious it is when she harps at people like that, Dr. Waters suggests viewing the behavior as strength overuse. I can tell Vivienne that persistence and problem solving are two of her most valuable traits but still ask her to dial them back a bit in this moment. You can also ask your child to rely on a different strength instead. After reminding my daughter how empathetic she is, I could ask her to think about how her pestering impacts me and to turn up the volume on consideration.
The strength switch also opens our eyes to positive aspects of certain traits. “Parents and kids get the message that there’s something wrong with being quiet or cautious, but introversion is associated with strengths such as listening, independence, patience, honesty, deep thinking, and being a very loyal friend,” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet. A friend of mine who worried about her daughter’s vanity realized that an obsession with one’s appearance is what Dr. Waters would call the shadow side of “appreciation of beauty,” a strength that can lead to a successful future in the arts or design.
In moments of frustration, take a couple of deep breaths and tell yourself, “The strengths are here, but they’re hiding. Let me switch over to find them,” Dr. Waters suggests. You’ll be better able to help your children grow, while also doing what Cain says is imperative: making sure to honor and take delight in who they are now.
Of course, playing to your child’s strengths doesn’t mean that you can’t also help him develop new skills. When hesitant kids learn to be bold or someone like my daughter manages to bite her tongue, Cain calls it the rubber-band theory of personality. We’re able to stretch out of our comfort zone, but only so far. A child who’s born with the temperament of a Bill Gates, for example, probably won’t grow up to have the social enthusiasm of an Oprah Winfrey. But with enough practice, any kid can develop comfort in the spotlight, math skills, patience, and more.
Most of us know that saying something like “He’s shy” can pigeonhole a kid, but talking about strengths can also become an identity thing, says Lele Diamond, Psy.D., a developmental psychologist in San Francisco. If we say, “This child’s the kind one, this one’s the brave one, this one’s the funny one,” notes Dr. Waters, kids won’t realize that although some traits come more naturally than others, every child is able to use all of the strengths. Instead of saying, “He’s creative” or “She’s super-outgoing,” Dr. Diamond suggests saying, “One of the things he’s really good at is ... ”
Like most things in child raising, strength-based parenting requires balancing like a tightrope walker. We need to identify strengths, switch over to see them, and focus on their growth, while also acknowledging that weaknesses, though normal, are not set in stone.