It's humiliating when your child throws a tantrum in public, mostly because people are watching (and judging your every move). You want them to see the real you: the "calm" one who doesn't yell at her little boy for planking in the toy section, because you refused to buy him a Batman cape. Unfortunately, hormones and defiant children don't mix well and when a child goes ballistic, it’s easy for mom to react without thinking.
But focusing on negative behavior doesn't work. Like, ever.
In her new book, "The Strength Switch,” Lea Waters, Gerry Higgins chair in positive psychology at Melbourne University, explains why parents should focus on children’s strengths, not weaknesses.
“It’s really just an approach to parenting where we seek to help our kids make the most of and maximize the skills, the talents and the positive qualities they already have, rather than putting our energy and emphasis on sort of compensating for what our children lack,” Waters said.
When you focus on a child's strengths—the things they excel in, which can include anything from creativity to critical thinking—you are teaching them to become independent thinkers.
“It’s looking at what they already have, what they came built with," she said. "That is their compass for how it is that you help to raise them.”
In theory, her suggestion is a fabulous idea. But real talk: How is a mom supposed to incorporate "strength-based parenting" when her kid is flipping out over a green, not pink, sippy cup?
Once you’ve established the underlying strength (in this case: leadership), all you need to do is show them how to use it properly.
According to Waters, focus on the positive. When your child exhibits good behavior, think about the strengths that lie beneath. For example, maybe empathy is what inspired your toddler to draw a picture for a sick friend, or perhaps their organizational skills are what prompted them to clean their room without being asked.
Waters calls the technique strength-spotting—training yourself to spot the strengths in your children when things are going well. All of which makes it easier to understand the source of bad behavior when we focus on the good.
Waters argues that children misbehave because they are either overplaying or underplaying a strength or, in some cases, the strength is thwarted, causing them to be frustrated.
For example, let's say your child is bossing you around while you're trying to cook dinner. Though it may seem disrespectful at the time, what's really going on is that they are misusing their strength in leadership.
Awesome. How do I stop it?
So, the next time your child collapses to the floor and demands justice, remember to pause for clarity and focus on their hidden talents.
Once you’ve established the underlying strength (in this case: leadership), all you need to do is show them how to use it properly. For instance, instead of scolding your child for being bossy, explain how they can communicate better (e.g., without sounding bossy) when they want things their way.
Strength-based parenting isn't letting your kids get away with inappropriate behavior. It's showing them how to set boundaries and teaching them how to use that strength to their advantage.
“You’re still disciplining your child; you’re still teaching them about what is the right behavior," she says, "but you’re doing it from a strength-based perspective."
So, the next time your child collapses to the floor and demands justice, remember to pause for clarity and focus on their hidden talents. Though knocking over an entire display at the grocery store may not seem like “strength,” it is an athletic gift in the world of parenting, and one that you may want to embrace.