So much of parenting feels like helping kids master the skills they find challenging, whether it’s tying their shoes, learning to be patient or not punching another sibling in the back of the car when he sings that annoying song again. It’s often a complex and time-consuming project, requiring a variety of strategies.
There’s nothing wrong with helping our kids learn to do better, but if it’s all parents do, it begins to seem like we’re just machines for the production of criticism, for which children are the vessels. Even if it’s well-meaning, that kind of instruction can grind both kids and parents down.
In her new book The Strength Switch, Australian psychologist Lea Waters suggests that we take the opposite approach and try to parent the kids in a way that enhances a child’s strengths rather than overcomes his weaknesses. This is not the same as being a “Tiger Mom” and insisting a reluctant child practice her piano. Waters, following the techniques of positive psychology, defines strengths differently.
“Strengths are things your child does well, does often and does with energy,” she says, citing research on what makes children gifted. “Think of the child who is good at playing the piano but consistently resists practicing, doesn’t love the lessons and hates recitals. There’s performance, but little energy or motivation. This means that even though he is good at playing the piano, it’s not a true strength.”
So how can parents figure out what a kid’s true strengths are? According to Waters, they have three components:
Strengths need not always arise from physical or mental talent, says Waters. They could also be strengths of character. “Talents are performance-based and observable,” says Waters. “We can see the passion, the skill and the gifts of a talent reasonably easily. We can also see where our child sits compared to others.” Character strengths are a little less obvious. According to Waters, “They come out subtly through a child’s actions and feelings. They are morality-based, not performance-based, and they guide our children’s kindness, compassion, courage, persistence and so forth.”
How can parents encourage their kids without overwhelming or smothering their interest? Or blowing a huge wad of cash on equipment or lessons and then having them end up never mastering anything like Buster Bluth? Waters recommends that parents first show interest in knowing more. “Be curious. Ask questions. Find role models,” she says. “Go to a game with them or watch a show with them.” Try to make sure the kids stay in the driver’s seat. In any activity involving their strengths, they’re doing the teaching and showing, rather than the other way around.
How kids answer their parents’ questions will also demonstrate how motivated they really are and whether helping them to pursue their interest is a helpful or counterproductive investment. It’s key for the kids to be the ones driving the bus. “Let them take the lead,” suggest Waters. “Go at a fast pace if that’s what they show they need, go at a slower pace if this is what they need.”
Lastly, Waters cautions parents to avoid the stage parent syndrome by making sure it’s not about their dreams and hopes but their kids’. “Remember this is about helping them grow into who they are,” she says, “rather then who you think they should be.”
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