The Strength Switch
Psychologist and author Dr Lea Waters argues that, by flicking the ‘Strength Switch’, parents can encourage creativity, develop their children’s confidence and enhance achievement.
Most of us have heard the expression ‘Play to your strengths’ but how many of us really do this in any systematic way? Instead, we tend to focus on our weaknesses: what we’ve done wrong or need to improve. We often do this with our children too, thinking that fixing their weaknesses will make them strong and successful.
But maybe you’ve noticed that overemphasis on the negative makes life feel like a slog – dull, frustrating or downright depressing – certainly nothing we want for ourselves or our kids. It doesn’t make parenting easier, either.
When Nick turned eight, we bought him a new bike. He loved it and rode it every day after school. Matt cleared a space for Nick to store his bike, but Nick seemed to forget this and left it by the front door more often than not, despite repeated reminders to put it away where it belonged. One evening, a couple of weeks after Nick’s birthday, I came home from a long day at work to find Nick’s bike leaning beside the front door as usual. When will that boy ever learn? I thought. Inside, in a not altogether nice way, I asked Nick to move his bike to the correct spot.
His face fell, and I had one of those awful moments of classic parental guilt. I’d walked in the door and, before even saying hello, I’d pointed out something my son had failed to do. What should have been a happy homecoming after not seeing each other all day was instead a painful episode for both of us.
We’re super-good at seeing what our children do wrong and jumping onto the negativity train. Psychologists have identified four thinking processes wired into our brain that predispose us to this.
The four negative defaults
Selective attention is our brains’ way of avoiding information overload by filtering incoming information. By selectively focusing on some aspects, our brain can make sense of the world, but it does this at the expense of noticing other aspects. When I snapped at Nick about his bike the minute I got home, I was displaying selective attention: blind to anything else Nick had done, I was seeing only the bike.
Negativity bias. The very architecture of the brain causes us to overlook our child’s strengths. Simply put, we’re programmed to see what’s wrong faster and more frequently than what’s right. Indeed, this negativity bias is so automatic that it happens unconsciously.
Projection. Now for an interesting twist. While we see weakness in others more readily than strengths, we’re very good at not seeing weakness in ourselves. Naturally, positive self-views make us feel good and negative self-views make us feel bad. So our ego has developed ways to filter out the negative and amplify the positive in our sense of self. When I was growing up, I was unbelievably messy, forgetful and disorganised. I confess that when I see signs of my children showing messiness and disorganisation – like Nick leaving his bike at the front door – it triggers a projection reaction.
Binary thinking is what we do when we describe our children like this: ‘He’s the naughty one’, ‘She’s the serious one’ or ‘He’s the class clown.’ It’s what we do when we place our children into categories. Binary thinking fails to do justice to reality. People are never just one thing. But there’s one aspect of binary thinking that particularly undermines strength-based parenting: it leads you to think that weakness and strength are polar opposites.
But we can override our negative defaults. I knew from the research that, just because I wasn’t seeing my kids’ strengths, didn’t mean they weren’t there. I had to find a way to shine light on them. I would 1) take a couple of deep breaths, and 2) insert a thought: The strengths are here, but they’re hiding. Let me switch over to find them. Thus the Strength Switch was born.
The Strength Switch acts like a circuit breaker. I literally picture a switch and watch it flick inside my head to turn the spotlight off the negative and turn it onto the positive. Its power is in reminding me that, in order to be a successful strength-based parent, I need to look at what my kids have done right before I look at what they’ve done wrong. Think of the switch as a self-imposed mental pinch – a wake-up call for you to focus intensely for a moment on strengths. It reorients you from the negative to the positive. It allows you to see your child’s strengths in a tense moment.
I encourage you to think clearly and deeply about where you place your attention with respect to your child. And when you don’t have the time to think clearly or deeply, remember the Strength Switch. And flick it.
The Strength Switch: how the new science of strength-based parenting helps your child and your teen to flourish is published by Scribe (£14.99).
Win a copy of The Strength Switch
We have one copy of The Strength Switch by Dr Lea Waters to give away. For a chance to win, simply send us an email including your name and address to [email protected]
Closing date: 31st December 2017. One winner will be selected at random and notified by 5th January 2018.