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Strength-Based Parenting: A Conversation with Dr. Lea Waters

Posted by Lori Walsh on
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We all want our children to find happiness and success in life, and it's that very drive that sometimes makes us come a bit unhinged when our kids mess up. Lea Waters is a pioneer in the field of strength-based parenting, and she says it's never too late to see parenting in a new light. Lea is the President Elect of the International Psychology Association. Her new book is called ‘The Strength Switch, How the New Science of Strength Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish’.

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Listen to the full conversation here.

I want to start with sort of the origins of this book and the seeds being planted and you not being so sure you were the person to do it. Can you take us back to how this all began, this particular project?

Sure. I have been a psychologist and a research scientist for over two decades at the University of Melbourne in Australia. My Ph.D. was in organizational psychology, and so for the initial phase of my career I was applying a lot of the principles of positive psychology, particularly the strength based approached in large corporate organizations with adults, generally senior executives. During that time, I became a mother myself. I have a 14 and a half year old son, Nicholas and a 10 year old daughter, Emily. I was interacting with Professor Martin Seligman who is the founder of the field of positive psychology. He and I had met each other at a number of conferences. It was the World Congress—which was in Philadelphia in 2011—where he brought together a host of experts in the field of positive psychology from all across the world to his house. He and I were talking about how do we get this approach to children, because we see it's working in the adult world. It should work even more with children because this is where they're still learning new habits, healthy habits, healthy thinking, and those kinds of approaches.

I've been doing a lot of work with young children in schools, and told him that, personally, I was using a lot of science at home with my two children and seeing great benefit. He really kind of just handed me the baton and said, "You need to start researching this more formally with parents." Well that wasn't my area of specialty. I mean, I'm a psychologist and a parent myself, but my work was in corporate organizations, my PhD was in organization psychology. So I kind of resisted his invitation and said I'm not a parent expert, I'm not a developmental or a child psychologist. It was just one of those little light bulb moments I suppose where someone sees a quality or a strength in you that maybe you don't see yet in yourself. He looked at me in the middle of this little cocktail function, and he said, "Well, you're a qualified psychologist. You're an expert in positive psychology. You're working with this in young children and in schools and with adults. You're using it in your own home with your own children. What about that sentence makes you not qualified to start to research this with parents?"

I realized, “okay. Sometimes we limit ourselves with the kind of definitions and categories that we put ourselves into”. That conversation with Professor Seligman really made me see that, “yes, this is something that I'm passionate about. This is something that I'm seeing the benefits of in my own home. How can I use my own strengths as a researcher to build up this research program to give the evidence base that's needed to then encourage and motivate other parents to take this approach?

Was the research already out there and you had to coordinate it, tap into it, and find out what had already been discovered, or was it a blank canvas where you said “this is the research that needs to be done" and started from that point?

It was probably more the latter. A little bit the former in the sense that the field of positive psychology by that stage was maybe kind of 12, 13, 14, over a decade old anyway. Strength-based sciences—more generally—have been around for about 30 years—not so much in the area of parenting. I didn't start with a completely blank canvas, because there was quite a lot of research on what strengths are, how we take a strength based approach, how we use it with adults in corporations, and how we introduce it to kids in schools. There wasn't really much of an application within families, and how it is that, as parents, we can start to introduce these ideas of strengths to our kids. A little bit of work [has been] done by the Gallop Center in the United States. A little bit of application from the United Kingdom, but really my research was starting from scratch and saying, “how do we bring this into the everyday life of a family?, and if we do, what are the benefits, not only for the children in the family, but also for the parents in the family?” Then taking that science and saying “okay, it's one thing to know the science, but how do we actually turn this into action in a way that's realistic for families who are busy and dealing with good times and bad times?”

For folks who might not be familiar with strength based research, strength based parenting, what is it? Give us an overview.

That's just a really lovely question in a good place. It's a question I often get when I start working with parents. It's quite simple, really. It's really just an approach to parenting where you are helping your kids to maximize and make the most of the skills, the talents, the positive qualities that already exist within them rather than spending their time trying to compensate for what's missing and what's lacking. I call the book ‘The Strength Switch’, and really the essence behind strength based parenting is this shift, or this switch in attention so that you're focusing first on building up the strengths in your children before you focus on correcting and minimizing their weaknesses.

The Strength Switch Book CoverBook Depository

Why do we focus on those weaknesses? What is it about us as humans that always draws to the one ‘D’ on the report card, or the one thing that we personally can't do, and then therefore our kids personally can't do?

Yeah. That's one of the questions I get a lot from parents. They're sort of saying, “I love my kids so much, I have great kids, I don't understand why I keep criticizing them. I don't understand why I'm always focusing on the negative”. The answer to that really comes from the field of neuroscience. What the neuroscientists have shown us, now, is that our brains are built with what the scientists call a negativity bias. This is a universal human phenomenon whereby our brains are constantly scanning the environment for the threat. What can go wrong? What's the error? What's the problem? What needs to be fixed in order to ensure that I'm safe and I can keep moving forward? Like I said, it happens at a subconscious level, so even if you love your kids so much, even if you're naturally an optimistic and positive person, your brain still has this inbuilt negativity bias.

While you can see that's a really important feature of the brain to ensure that we survive, to keep us out of harm's way, it's not really the most helpful feature in terms of helping us to see the positive qualities in our children, because the brain's always looking for what's wrong and what needs to be fixed.

I feel there's one more big question that you probably get all the time that we need to get out of the way before we dig into some of the tactics, and strategies, and where to begin. That's the concern that parents have, that we're creating a generation of special snowflakes and kids who only work on their strengths. You have a pretty good response to that. What would you say?

That is a really common question. I think it's an understandable concern for parents when they hear about taking this strength based approach. What I found in my research, and what I found also just in my own practice with hundreds of parents all across the world, is that that doesn't occur, and I'll tell you why. It doesn't occur for three reasons. Firstly, when you're taking a strength-based approach, what you're doing is you're actually instilling your children with something real and concrete inside of them. Maybe it's a positive aspect of their personality, like kindness. Maybe it's an ability, like sporting talent or music ability. It's not this kind of false praise where you're always building your child up with no foundation underneath it. You're connecting them to something real and concrete.

The second reason is that, and this is a bit of a counterintuitive, when you take a strength based approach with your children, when you see that your role as a parent is to help identify and build the strengths in your children, what happens is that you're then also able to address weaknesses, address problem behavior, address weak spots with your children much more frequently and in a much more constructive and honest way. What happens is that your kids know that first and foremost you're seeing the good in them, which means that when you start to talk to them about problem areas and areas that do need to be fixed and weaknesses, they're less defensive. They know that you're on their side, and you're seeing first the good in them, they're actually much more open to addressing their problem behaviors. You're not getting this kind of overly precious snowflake.

The third thing about strengths, is that everyone has them. You have strengths Lori, I have strengths, everyone has strengths. We all have our unique and individual strengths, and that's what makes us different to other people. You're not special because you have strengths. I'm not special because I have strengths. There's not this fear, that when you start to connect your children with their strengths that they'll think that they're special and entitled, and that they're better than everyone else. What they'll realize is that their strengths make them unique, but they don't make them special because everyone has strengths. The beauty of working with strengths with kids and with teenagers is that once they start to internalize that they have their own strengths, they naturally start to see strengths in other people. They themselves are taking the strength based approach. Rather than seeing themselves as either precious or overly entitled or better than everyone else, it does quite the opposite. They start to see that, and they start to appreciate the qualities and the strengths in other people.

Lea, I'm wondering, the approaches in this book and some of the tactics and things as you really dig into it, are not necessarily the way many of us were parented. What are some of the challenges of looking at that and saying “well that's not my instinct because it's not what was passed down to me." Are you finding that parents say that to you, and say “well this is a big switch from how I grew up?"

Yeah, absolutely. I mentioned before the idea of the negativity bias, so in a way our brains are working against us in terms of being a strength-based parent. But the other thing that works against us is exactly what you said is that this is a new approach. The field of positive psychology is almost two decades old now, so it's quite a new approach. It's such an enabling approach, and there's so much good science and evidence behind it now, but it's a new way of thinking. We weren't raised by strength-based parents. Our parents weren't raised by strength-based parents. We're kind of fighting against generations who really, by default, assumed that improvement was naturally just a process of fixing weakness. If I use this expression with you Lori, and I say ‘areas of improvement’. Tell me, what's the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear that expression ‘areas of improvement’?

It means the things I have to work on.

Yeah. We've had generations who just by default assumed that improvement is a process of correcting what is wrong with us. I think one of the biggest gifts that the field of positive psychology, the science of positive psychology, has given us over the almost last two decades is really expanding our understanding of improvement. So that we understand that improvement is both a process of fixing what's wrong with us, but we can also improve and build on what's right with us. Now we didn't get that as children, so it's not our natural instinct because it wasn't the way we were raised. This is where the opportunity for contemporary parents is to say “I'd like to do things differently, and now I have this great evidence base and this great science behind me that says improvement isn't just about fixing what's wrong with us, but I can also help my kids invest time and energy on improving and building up what's right with them”.

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So let's talk about some of the strategies and the beginnings. How do you look at different kids, if you've got more than one, and hone in on the things that are their strengths already?

The first thing to do before you even start to think about the techniques, and on the website I've got a whole bunch of free resources for parents to do—surveys, games, quizzes, all sorts of things. Really it's to have an understanding of what strengths are. Often, we don't because as you and I have just discussed, we weren't raised in a way where strengths were at the foreground of our schooling system or parenting. So understanding what strengths are. Strengths sort of come in two broad buckets. We've got strengths of talent and we've got strengths of character. The strengths of talent are skill based. They're performance based. They're very observable. You can see if someone's creative. You can see if they're sporty. You can see signs of intellect or technical ability. Strengths of character are less observable because they're not performance based, they're more personality based. They're things like capacity for kindness, having a great sense of fairness or justice, being open minded, being compassionate, being curious. They come through in thoughts and feelings and actions rather than being skill-based.

In the strength-based parenting course that I run with parents, that's where I start. I start with just actually educating parents about what strengths are, and the idea that we've got these two broad categories. Society more generally tends to only focus on that first category of strengths. We tend to focus only on skills and talents, which is such a shame because their character strengths are so important to a life well lived. They're so important to building resilience and optimism in our children. So getting parents to understand that there are these two broad categories. Getting parents to understand that there are strengths of character, that they're more invisible, but they're equally as powerful in how you want to help your children grow up and be good people. Then you start to get into the specific kind of activities and tips and tools and techniques that can help you, as a parent, to identify the strengths in your children.

One of those techniques is called ‘strength spotting’. It's really about simply teaching yourself, as a parent,to introduce this question. That is when you see your child doing well, when you see them being engaged, being energized, enjoying what they're doing, performing well or engaging in good behavior, it's just to start asking yourself as a parent, “what is the strength that sits underneath this behavior?” Starting to kind of be a detective and peel back the onion and have a look at. “Okay, my daughter just got into the volleyball team, for example. What led to that success? It was partly her sporting ability. It's partly her persistence. It was partly her determination. It was partly her teamwork”. So, starting to ask yourself, “what is the strength that sits underneath that behavior?” If you see your two children sharing for example, that's obviously positive behavior that we want to encourage as parents. Just adding that extra question, “what is the strength that sits underneath that behavior?” In that case, it's the strength of kindness, or it's the strength of fairness, for example. It's a really simple way just introducing that one question. A small shift can make a big difference.

How important is watching your kid love what they're doing, and see them drawing energy from something? Is that a key to really seeing what their strength would be? Is it something that doesn't exhaust them or make them crabby? How important is the mood?

So important. One of the things that the strength based scientists have shown us, is that we often think about strengths as something that we're good at. That's partly right, but it's not the full picture of what a strength is. What we've shown in the science is that a strength is something that you're good at, so you perform well at, but it also has two additional elements. In addition to being good at something, a strength is something that you get energized by, so it gives you energy. A strength is something that you're self-motivated to do, so you would just naturally choose to do it. Picking up on your comment and observation, is that when you see your child engaging in something that just clearly gives them energy, you can see it in their eyes, you can see it in their body language, you can hear it in the pitch and the tone and the volume of their voice—this  is a sign to you as a parent that they're using a strength.

In contrast, when we're forced to use our weaknesses, we get very depleted, we get very de-energized, and it zaps us of energy. The metaphor that I use with parents is, well actually I get them to do a little activity and I ask them to write, pick up a pen and write down their child's name with their non-dominant hand. When that happens, it takes them longer to write the name, it's messy, it's not very good. Then I ask them pick it up and write it with your dominant hand. They do it very quickly and the writing is legible. It's the same thing when you're asking your child to always draw on a weakness, and improve a weakness. It's sort of like asking them to live their life by always writing with their non-dominant hand. It's tiring and it's not effective. Energy is a key clue.

Then the third clue is the self-motivation piece. If you're seeing in your child they're just naturally choosing to engage in this activity or build up this skill without you having to do much prompting or prodding, that's usually a clue that there's a strength that's sitting underneath that. If you have a musical child for example, you might have two children who are learning the piano, both who are equally good in terms of their technical performance, but you have one child where you're having to constantly nag them to do their practice. They don't want to. You don't have that third element. You have the other child who they can't even walk past the piano without having to [play]—they're almost compelled to sit down and quickly play something. There are these three signs, being good at it, getting energy from it, and being self-motivated, yearning to utilize that strength as much as possible. They're the three things that you would look for as a parent.

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I have always been a devoted scribbler in the margins of books. As a reader, I underline and highlight. I add questions marks and exclamation points. I argue with the author. But where are the margins in a radio program like In the Moment? 

You have to create them. 

Welcome to In the Margins. It’s a place for behind-the-scenes. It’s a place for expanding the conversation.

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Meet me in the Hills! In the Moment heads to the South Dakota Festival of Books for a live broadcast from the Deadwood Mountain Grand. It's my favorite event of the year, and much reading awaits. I'm currently deep into the sweetness of "Braiding Sweetgrass." Here are a few other titles waiting on the nightstand.