Professor Lea Waters is a registered psychologist, professor and founding director of the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Melbourne. Lea has been a psychology researcher for over 20 years, with a focus on positive parenting, positive education, and in recent years, strength-based parenting. Lea is one of the co-founders of The Strength Exchange, a strength-based parenting resource and is bringing out a book “The Strength Switch: Using the new science of strength-based parenting to help you and your child flourish“ in the coming months. KidsMatter has been lucky enough to be able to sit down with Lea for her professional insight into the following questions.

Why focus on children’s strengths?

We can sometimes focus too much on things our children don’t do as well as other children. While there’s no doubt that parents can help children improve in these areas, an emerging field of research reveals that focusing on children’s strengths means they’re more likely to enjoy higher levels of life satisfaction and wellbeing. It means placing more emphasis on amplifying your children’s potential than fixing their shortcomings. Focusing on children’s strengths can help build things like their confidence, resilience, competence, coping abilities and self-worth, which can help provide the skills to develop some of their weaknesses and reduce the risk of mental health difficulties developing.

In the past a strength has been seen as something your child is good at, but two decades of psychological research shows us that it is more than that. A strength has three elements:

  • Performance – a child is good at it
  • Energy – it leaves them feeling energized and motivated
  • Use – a child will naturally choose to use that strength

For example, my 13-year-old son is good at piano, but it’s not a true strength because he never finishes his practice. The ‘energy’ and ‘use’ elements are missing. When you see your child do something well, do it with energy and do it a lot, you will know you have unearthed a strength. This doesn’t only apply to activities such as music or sport but more importantly it applies to our character strengths. Character strengths are our positive personality qualities such as kindness, persistence, curiosity and bravery. Every child has character strengths and you’ll notice that your child has some aspects of their character that they perform well, e.g. high levels of emotional intelligence. A character strength will also evoke high levels of energy when used and the child will naturally use that strength over and over.

You can learn more about character strengths at the Values in Action Institute website.

What is strengths-based parenting and what are the benefits?

Strength-based parenting (SBP) is an approach where parents deliberately identify and cultivate positive states, processes and qualities in their children. It’s about connecting your kids with their inborn strengths in their character (e.g. humour, kindness) as well as their pursuits such as writing or sporting ability.

SBP is a style of parenting that encourages you to intentionally and regularly build upon your child’s positive qualities. It is about noticing what your kids have done right before you look at what they have done wrong. Rather than clearing a path for children or ‘helicopter parenting’, it’s about helping children develop inner resources and strengths that allow them to clear their own pathways. Let’s say you notice your child shows an aptitude for creativity and art. You might try to create environments where your child can play to their strengths by enrolling them in an art class and making sure you’ve got good quality pencils and paint at home. You could display the artwork in your home or suggest that your child give it to a family member as a gift.

SBP is also helpful during challenging times and is particularly helpful when children are experiencing problems. Let’s say your daughter is going through friendship issues. You might talk to her about the strengths she has that will help her navigate the problem, such as forgiveness, empathy or bravery. Discuss how she’s managed stressful times in the past – perhaps she’s a good listener, negotiator or, in a worst-case scenario, makes new friends easily.

Children whose parents use SBP techniques cope better with conflict, use their strengths to meet homework deadlines and have lower levels of stress. Unsurprisingly, they also have a better understanding of their own strengths. SBP is also associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, positive emotions and confidence in the ability to cope with stress.

Can you give us a few tips for strengths-based parenting?

1. Label their strengths. I call it the ‘See It and Say It’ approach. Let’s say your child wants to share a toy. Instead of just saying ‘Thank you for sharing’, a strength-based parent will add a strength-based sentence like ‘That’s kind of you’. You’re letting your child know ‘You have an inner strength called kindness’.

2. Provide experiences and the environment to foster that strength. When you start to see a hint of a strength – chess, say, or a strong sense of social justice, or a love of nature – start to get your child involved in it. Buy them a chess set, help them fundraise for a cause they choose or enrol them in a community garden.

3. Give them the right equipment. It might sound simple but it’s easily overlooked. For example, when my daughter is watching TV, she always has a pencil in her hand drawing the cartoons. Her Creativity strength has the ‘performance’ element but also ‘energy’ and ‘use’. I always keep the craft box full.

4. Practise. Even though our strengths may be partly genetic, we need practise to develop them.

5. Role model. Connect your children with role models who possess the same strength, either in real life or through biographies in books, websites or YouTube. If they’re too young to read, talk to them about figures instead, like Mother Teresa if your child’s strength is compassion.

What can this mean for parents?

Being a strengths-based parent is about using your own strengths too. Ask yourself ‘What are my strengths? What do I do well, get energy from and would choose to do, and how can I bring that to my parenting?’ You might have a variety of character strengths that you can bring to parenting and to help your child develop their strengths. You might also be the creative parent who signs up to design the costumes for the school concert, or the prudent parent who helps a teenager craft a monthly budget. It’s a strength if these things are energising for you.

Strength-based parenting doesn’t just benefit our children; it also improves the life satisfaction and confidence of the parents themselves. In one of my studies, parents who went through a four week strength-based parenting program found parenting more interesting, felt more confident in their role as a parent and experienced more positive emotions toward their children.

While the importance of providing love and emotional support to children is well understood, we now know the importance of deliberately identifying and building strengths in our children.

Can you suggest some practical tips, resources and links?

Strengths surveys: There are a number of online surveys that children can take to help them identify and think about their strengths. The Gallup Institute has the StrengthsExplorer for children aged 10-14 and the StrengthsQuest for children aged 15-25. If parents and children are interested in identifying personality strengths, they can go to The Values in Action Institute and complete the free online VIA-Youth survey.

Strengths spotting: Think about the strengths that underpin your child’s actions and let them know what you see. Spot the kindness that underpins them sharing with their friends, their self-control to finish homework on time rather than watch TV and the persistence they are using in sports training.

Strengths letter: Write a letter to your child letting them know about the strengths you see in them and how these strengths will help them cope with challenging times as well as helping them to thrive during the good time.

Strengths role model: It always helps to see how other parents and kids are using their strengths. Visit the The Strengths Exchange and discover how parents and children of all ages apply character strengths to everyday.

Pre-order Lea’s book:The Strength Switch: Using the new science of strength-based parenting to help you and your child flourish

Family strengths as identified by Australian families