Yesterday I introduced The Strengths Switch by Dr. Lea Waters. Today I want to highlight the distinctions she makes among different kinds of strengths, learned behaviors, and weaknesses. People can become very proficient at learned behaviors, but without the energy and enjoyment associated with strengths. To understand the differences, let’s look at three dimensions for evaluating possible strengths:
- Performance: being good at something. Watch for times when your children show above-age levels of achievement, rapid learning, and repeated patterns of success.
- Energy: feeling good while doing it. Strengths are self-reinforcing. The more we use them, the more energized we become.
- High use: choosing to do it. Watch for what your children choose to do in their spare time, how often they engage in these activities, how they speak about these activities.
Different Kinds of Strengths
Using these dimensions helps parents distinguish among different kinds of strengths, as shown in the figure below.
Core Strengths are our go-to strengths. They fuel high levels of performance and energy and use.
Think about your child. Imagine her without one of her core strengths. For example, my son Jonathan is social. It is impossible to imagine Jonathan being himself without his sense of humor or loyalty to his friends. My son Josh is empathetic and kind. It’s impossible to imagine Josh without thinking of his thoughtfulness. What are the core strengths that are the essence of your children? What are the core strengths that make you the person you have become?
Growth Strengths energize us and offer the potential for good performance, but use is typically low to medium. You may see only glimpses of them, but they can shine if they are developed. You may notice that when your child is using a growth strength she is energized and showing early signs of good performance. According to Dr. Waters, these strengths are fascinating because they don’t initially look like strengths, but they can blossom quickly once they are discovered.
You can encourage your child to use her growth strengths by:
- Noticing the strength she’s drawing upon
- Pointing out how her performance is improving
- Letting her know you see the positive energy she’s exuding when she’s using the strength
- Offering low pressure opportunities to use that strength
- Praising her when she chooses to use it on her own accord
Learned Behaviors need to be taught, often to meet requirements of parents or school. Therefore, motivation to perform learned behaviors comes from the desire to please others, operate successfully in the world, or to gain external rewards. They are not intrinsically motivating. Your child can excel in these areas, but they do not give energy.
But What About Weaknesses?
Weaknesses also exist. Weaknesses are features that are disadvantages or flaws that prevent us from being effective at something. We can be weak in certain skills, abilities, talents, or character traits. We all have weaknesses. When my sons were young, I always showed them when I made a mistake in order to model the fact that no one is perfect and that it’s okay to not be great at everything. Today my husband and I often reach out to them for technical support when we reach the limits of our ability to deal with the machines in our home.
Dr. Waters stresses that strength-based parenting doesn’t mean ignoring your child’s weaknesses, but it does allow you to approach them from a healthier and more productive perspective. When the focus is first and foremost on strengths, everyone can be more genuine and less defensive when communicating about weaknesses. Three essential messages to give your child about weaknesses:
- Just as everyone has strengths, everyone has weaknesses.
- Having weaknesses doesn’t mean you’re unworthy.
- Avoid the trap of spending too much time focusing on your weaknesses.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Each day you have the opportunity to practice strengths-based parenting. You will learn from your progress, and you’ll constantly be given new real-life opportunities to become a master electrician, flipping the switch.
Go to the Strength Switch website for free resources, a blog reflecting on putting the strengths switch into action, and information about the 5-week online course.
Canadian Positive Psychology Conference in 2015 at Niagara on the Lake.
Here she is in the middle of the dancers.
Waters, L. (2017). The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. New York: Avery.
Waters, L. (2018, Jan. 2). Working with Weakness: 3 Ways to Effectively Confront Your Child’s Weak Spots. Lea Waters’ blog.
Waters, L. (2018, Jan. 16). 4 Ways to Put Strength-Based Discipline into Practice. Lea Waters’ blog. Includes a discussion of dialing up or dialing down strengths.
The picture of core strengths, growth strengths, learned behaviors, and weaknesses is used courtesy of Dr. Lea Waters.