Parents have a natural tendency to focus on a child’s weaknesses, says Australian psychologist Professor Lea Waters.
But identifying their strengths and amplifying them is a better way to help them reach their full potential.
Waters says our brains are hard-wired to notice threats and risks in our environment more quickly than noticing what’s going well.
That “negativity bias” gave us a survival advantage, but it’s not the most helpful function in our brain when it comes to having a positive relationship with our children, she says.
In her book The Strength Switch she champions a different approach.
“It’s not about avoiding problem behaviour in your children, it’s not about denying weaknesses or areas that they need to fix," says Waters.
“It’s about being mindful of how much of your time and attention goes towards the negative - and switching your focus.”
When you go to correct something, ask yourself what’s going well and focus on that first, she says.
What do I want instead?
In a situation where young children are fighting, for example, Waters suggests approaching it from the angle of the behaviour the parent wants.
“Instead of saying ‘stop fighting’ say ‘hey kids how about co-operating’ … or grabbing one and saying we need a little bit more kindness from you right now.”
Wait to see if correction is needed
“There are some weaknesses and so-called problem behaviour in our kids that we don’t have to fix because they’re not going to end up limiting that child’s happiness or success in the future.”
Teaching kids how to use their strengths wisely
Waters says her son is very funny but gets into trouble at school because he sometimes overplays his humour.
So the conversation is not that ‘you’re doing the wrong thing’ but ‘you’ve got this great quality but you need to learn when to dial it up and when to dial it back’.
Easing the tension
Constant correction heightens tensions between parent and child – kids get defensive and parents are frustrated – and that prevents genuine conversations about problem areas or weaknesses.
When you’re always in correction mode as a parent you’re always seeing the things that aren’t improving, Waters says. You think you’re not being a good parent because you can’t get your child to put his bike away, but haven’t noticed that he’s getting his homework done.
Changing the focus means you’re also seeing the good things in the areas that are improving and dramatically improves the relationships
We want children to grow up with “a quiet sense of confidence”, she says.
Praise vs over-praise
When things are going well, there are moments when you acknowledge that and name it, saying things like ‘I really saw how kind you were to your friend’.
But you can overpraise a kid and it backfires, Waters says. And praise doesn’t have to be verbal – it can be a pat on the shoulder or a smile.
Changing the pattern
It's the same changing any habit, says Waters. “Set yourself up for little moments of success. That’s how we learn, that’s how the brain re-patterns.”
Identify a particular strength that you know your child, and focus on that. Pick a relaxed time of the day or week to start trying the technique.
As a parent, don’t expect to be able to do this 100 percent of the time, she says.
You can read more parenting advice stories in our collection It Takes A Village.