Many of us were raised with a false assumption about ourselves and it’s an assumption we perpetuate when we become parents, says Dr Lea Waters, a world-renowned expert and director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at Melbourne University.
“For a really long time, we’ve had this unquestioned assumption that improvement is about fixing what’s wrong with us rather than seeing we can also improve what’s right with us,” explains Waters. “It’s been a false assumption – that we don’t need to work on improving our strengths because they’re the things we’re already good at. That’s a false assumption, because it assumes we have no room to grow with our strengths.
“Reality is, our strengths are the area [where] we have the most growth opportunity because we’re starting at a much higher baseline – it’s easier for us to grow our strengths. It’s much harder for us to grow our weaknesses, because they’re weaknesses. “
She uses the analogy of writing with your dominant hand and then trying to write with your non-dominant hand.
“Always asking [someone] to improve on their weaknesses is like always asking them to write with their non-dominant hand. They will improve, but it will never be as good as writing with their dominant hand.”
In the two decades since the inception of positive psychology, strength-based training has become a mainstay in many organisations seeking to get the best out of their employees.
But, it’s time to make it personal, says the mother of two.
The underlying principle is the same in the office and at home: play first to your strength before you work on your weakness.
“It’s really a universal principle that can be applied in the workplace, it can be applied in schools, it can be applied in families, it can be applied to your own personal development,” says Waters, who decided to focus her new book, The Strength Switch, on parenting because “families are by far the most powerful positive psychology delivery system of all”.
So how exactly does it work?
“Strength-based parenting is … where you help your kids maximise and make the most of the skills and talents and positive aspects of the personality that they already have, rather than trying to compensate for what they don’t have,” Waters explains. “It’s about working with what they’ve got, not what’s missing, and the focus is first on building up strength before you seek to correct weakness.”
Hesitancy in adopting the approach tends to be because it is at odds with the way a person was parented themselves, Waters says, and there are certain misunderstandings about the effects of the technique.
“A fear is that if we build up our children’s strengths, they’ll have this over-inflated ego and sense of entitlement and think they’re better than everyone else,” she says. “I think that’s a function of people not understanding strength.”
Waters distinguishes between having strengths and being special; everyone has strengths, they are simply different, so it is learning to recognise and develop your own without dismissing those of other people. Through mutual recognition of strength, Waters says, we can learn how to use what we have to help others. In this way, it is not egocentric.
“Your strength is how you contribute to the world,” she explains. “A teenager with great analytical skills might be the one their friends turn to when they’ve got problems they can’t figure out.”
Strengths come in many forms (Waters’ website lists hundreds, which include character traits but can also be physical or mental abilities), but what “strength” is can be misunderstood.
Often a child will perform well in a certain area and the parent misconstrues this as strength and pushes it, despite the child’s lack of enjoyment. Strength, Waters clarifies, consists of three elements: performance, energy, and self-motivation.
“Knowing the three elements is more about the parent not pushing the child just because they have performance, but stepping back and going, ‘Do I also see energy and self-motivation?’ You’re trying to find the trifecta.”
Of course, pursuing strengths brings with it the potential for imbalance – for example, a child who strives for excellence has tantrums when their expectations are not met.
“When we do the work with strength, we talk about the shadow side of the strength. That is, if you overuse and over-rely on appreciation of beauty and excellence, for instance, it can make you quite rigid and demanding,” Waters says.
“Likewise, if you overuse curiosity you can come across as being too nosy; if you overuse kindness, people take advantage of it. We call it the golden mean – that is, the right strength, in the right amount, at the right time. That is a big part of what strength-based parenting is about – connecting your kid with what their strengths are, but [also] teaching them, ‘How do you use these strengths in a way that serves you well?’ “
This requires teaching them “when to dial up a strength and when to dial down a strength”.
With the beauty and excellence example, it means saying: “This is a great strength of yours and it helps you in all of these ways – it helps you do great assignments and to keep your room tidy and makes you a great party planner. But when you overuse it there’s this shadow side, so there are some situations where you need to dial it down.”
Similarly, certain strengths need to be dialled up at times.
“If you have a tough assignment ahead of you, you have to dial up your courage and your persistence,” Waters says. “It’s not only about helping your child identify and deal with strengths; it’s about teaching your kids how to be flexible with their strengths.”
Finessing a strength-based approach is as much a skill for the parent as it is the child.
“When life is going well [it’s easy] … it’s those moments of tension” – the times when parents recognise they most need to offer a strength-based perspective, but are the the most challenging times to do so.
“The truth is it’s like any new skill – it’s something you have to practise and be persistent in and allow yourself permission to be human … pick back up and start again. Like any form of good parenting, it requires you to be persistent, get better at it, give yourself permission to fail and try again.”
And like any skill, as it develops we can start to apply it to other areas of our lives.
“I talk about strength-helpers – who are the people in your life who are helping you to see your own strengths and helping you to use them, and who are you being a strength-helper to?
“The principles are universal. How do you be the best version of yourself? You play to strengths. And how do you help those you love be the best version of themselves?”