Our strengths can overcome our weaknesses. This fact has become more of a focus in psychology research in recent years. Discovering and building on peoples’ strengths (or your own) is a powerful tool. It’s a fantastic way to encourage a positive self-image, hope and optimism for the future, and a sense of purpose.
As parents, we can be strengths-focused in two ways:
- Looking at ourselves and parenting from our own strengths.
- Focusing on our children’s strengths and helping to build them up.
I was reminded of the importance of having a strengths-based focus a number of times this week. I thought about it while having a Facebook discussion about childhood disorders–especially Autistic Spectrum Disorders–and then again while watching a true story with my kids.
My girls and I love to watch short documentaries called “Great Big Story” on Youtube. One of the stories this week was about two best friends. These men, friends since a young age, both have disabilities. One of them is blind and the other lost both his arms in childhood. But, helping each other and working together, they have made a huge and beautiful impact on their local environment by planting over 10,000 trees. These two men with disabilities have transformed what was a wasteland–just cobblestones and sand–into a peaceful natural oasis using their strengths.
Why strengths matter
As humans, there is a tendency to have a negative bias–we focus on what is wrong, what we need to work on, the areas we fail in. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this, it’s our natural way of improving, avoiding dangers and making sure we are healthy and doing the best we can with our lives. Sometimes we need to focus on our weak areas–give ourselves that push to improve, get fit, study harder, eat better, stop smoking….
The problem is that when we only focus on our weaknesses there is a big risk of feeling discouraged, depressed, and negative about ourselves and our lives. When we focus on all the things we do wrong as parents…
We yelled at the kids, we got them takeaways twice this week, we didn’t know what to do when they played up, we had “bad parenting moments” (we all have those!)
…it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and down about parenting in general. Parenting is hard and we are often even harder on ourselves about whether we are doing a good job.
What does parenting from your strengths look like?
I want to tell you a story. When my daughter Lula was born, I took my job as a parent really seriously. (One of my strengths is a love of learning and I applied it in a huge way to parenting.) I was already very trained in child development from my teaching and postgraduate work but I made it my job to read and learn everything there is to know about raising a baby: routines, sleep, feeding, stages of brain development, everything! I wanted to be the perfect parent, but then, just before Lula turned two, I became very unwell.
I was diagnosed with Crohns disease, a life-long autoimmune disorder, and for an entire year I could barely get out of bed. I couldn’t play with my little daughter. I couldn’t go to play groups. I couldn’t take her out to the park. I couldn’t do all the parenting things I had learnt about or wanted to do.
I know what it’s like to feel like you’re failing as a parent. It was the worst feeling–knowing all of the things I thought a good parent “should” do and then not being able to parent at all.
All I could do was give her cuddles. Looking back, I now see that for me this is parenting from my strengths. Some days I have huge amounts of energy but others it’s hard to get out of bed. I get sick often because the medication I’m on lowers my immunity. My Crohns is currently in remission (yay!) but I do have limitations.
What are your parenting strengths?
My main strength in parenting is affection. As a mum, I find it easy to be very nurturing and affectionate. I love to hug and kiss my kids, rub their heads and hold their hands. It feels very natural for me to tell them I love them and how amazing they are. Even when I can’t play a lot with them, or they have to do school work around me as I rest on the beanbag, I can be a good mum by letting them know they are loved, appreciated, and important to me.
What’s your parenting strength? In what areas do you think you do well?
- make them laugh
- good at keeping them healthy
- encouraging with their sports
- do you teach them things
- support their interests?
Give yourself a pat on the back for your awesome parenting and then use those strengths to make your parenting experience even better.
Studies have shown that when people use their strengths to do things they don’t enjoy at work, they begin to have more success and enjoy those areas more.
There are some things about parenting that are just not enjoyable–disciplining our kids, cleaning up after them, ferrying them around to all of their activities…Can you use your strengths to make the un-fun parts better?
Let’s imagine your strength is making the kids laugh but you really hate being a taxi driver for all of their activities. Is there some way you can make the drive in the car a funny, silly thing? Could you make a big deal of being a taxi driver, putting on a voice and pretending to charge them a fee? What would make them laugh as you take them to and from sport practices?
The founders of Positive Psychology have a quiz called the VIA Survey of Character Strengths on their website which I would recommend taking (there is one for children too). It doesn’t test skill-based strengths like swimming or music, or the kinds of parenting strengths we talked about above, but it does look at 24 important character strengths that we can use to make our lives more enjoyable. It’s part of a huge research project and by doing the test you find out your top five character strengths and also contribute to the important research they are doing at Penn University on Positive Psychology and Well-being.
(You’ll need to create a log in, which takes a few seconds, but once you do you get access to a huge number of tests that teach you about yourself and your kids.)
Strength-based Parenting for your children
When I was raising our foster daughter–who is an adult now–I realised how important it was for her, in many ways, that we focused on her strengths. (I wrote a magazine article recently about strength-based parenting and fostering which you can read here.)
Children who have come from difficult backgrounds often have a number of struggles and it can be easy to put a lot of focus on these. The same is true for children with disabilities or childhood disorders of some kind.
Strengths and Disabilities
I heard a story recently about an incredible man, Itzhak Perlman who has lived his life with a serious disability. As a four year old he contracted Polio which left him unable to walk without crutches or leg braces for the rest of his life. Itzhak loved music from a very young age and his parents encouraged him to become a violinist. (As he points out, with the violin you can play seated!) One day while playing an important piece at a concert, one of his strings broke. Most violinists would stop and swap instruments at this point but Itzhak continued, playing the entire song on only three strings. Afterwards Itzhak made this comment.
“Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”Itzhak Perlman
I love this. This is exactly what we all have to do in our lives. We all have limitations, disabilities, or weaknesses of some kind. Our kids do too. It’s making the most of what we do have that is the main thing–using our strengths to make the most of our lives. Making music with what we have.
One group of researchers in this area calls it finding your child’s spark: the thing(s) that excites your child, their passion or purpose. Sparks might be obvious, such as music, art, sport; or they might be more subtle, such as leadership, being with family, showing empathy, or comedy.
Encourage your children to use what they have, build on their strengths and passions, and find what sparks them!