Strength-based Parenting

Prof. Lea Waters from University of Melbourne, Australia, talks about positive and strength-based parenting in this exclusive interview.

By Virgina Jacob

Strength-based Parenting


As parents and individuals, when things go south, you know where we are getting it wrong. Help isn’t far away either. In fact, help comes from within, thanks to the one word called ‘positivity’. Welcome to a world of positive parenting. To understand this concept further, ParentCircle catches up with Professor Lea Waters, Director of Center of Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne, Australia, whose special study on a new concept called ‘strength-based parenting’ was published in the journal, Psychology. The study has grabbed worldwide headlines for its uniqueness. Here are excerpts from this exclusive Email conversation:

PC: You have advocated strength-based parenting - What is the idea behind it? How does it work?

Prof. Waters: Our role as parents is to help develop our children into well-adjusted adults who contribute meaningfully to society. Parents guide the process of development. The process can be deficit-based or strength-based. This means we can develop our children by:

Starting with what’s wrong with them and fixing that.

or

Starting with what’s right with them and enhancing that.

Excellence is not the opposite of failure and strength is not the opposite of weakness. So, if parents put their time and energy into fixing their children’s failures and weaknesses, this does not automatically build excellence and strength. Capitalising on strengths leads to success. Strength-based parenting encourages parents to first focus on what their children are doing well. Strength can come in the form of the child’s personality (e.g. courage, kindness, fairness); talent (e.g. musical ability, analytical ability, artistic ability, intellectual ability, sporting ability) or skills (e.g. communication, problem-solving, planning, organisational skills and time management skills).

When parents foster their children’s strengths, the power of these strengths grows to overcome weaknesses, which then allows parents to spend less time rectifying limitations and more time helping their children excel.

PC: What according to you is the biggest challenge in parenting? And, how should we face it?

Prof. Waters: I think the biggest challenge for today’s parents is probably the same as the challenge of parents from the earlier generations. There’s the element of fear parents carry around with them that ‘I am not doing a good enough job as a parent’ - the fear that our children will not be happy, will not be liked, will not fit in and will not be successful. When parents can face this fear themselves, they become better parents because they stop projecting and pushing this fear on to their children. This is the advantage of taking a strength-based approach. Parents see the strengths in their children and their fear subsides as they realise their child can use these strengths to be happy, to make meaningful friendships and to achieve success.

PC: So, you’re saying there’s no one way to parent…

Prof. Waters: The key, for me, is the understanding that no one is perfect and that we are all OK in our own way. When we let go of ourselves having to be perfect parents and our children having to be perfect, this makes space for true and deep connections. Compassion, empathy and acceptance are key ingredients for parenting a child. Looking for a child’s strengths and developing them into unique individuals is paramount. It boils down to having faith that your child is a good person and she will find her way in the world with wise guidance from you and others.

PC: A recent survey conducted for ParentCircle by the world’s leading research agency, IMRB, showed that 1 in 3 children in India feel that their parents constantly compare them with others. What kind of an emotional impact will it have on a child’s psyche?

Prof. Waters: Social comparison has a negative impact on the lives of children. There will always be someone who is better. Parents should not send the wrong signals to their children that their love is conditionally based on how well their child is performing; rather, they should focus on who the child is as a unique individual. (These statistics are not good at all).

PC: In the same survey, we found that in India parents continue to stress heavily on grades and marks. Does that worry you?

Prof. Waters: Grades and marks are important to help a student’s career prospect, but they are only one part of the equation. Longitudinal research has shown that the personality, self-confidence and skills of a student have more effect on future success than grades do. The outcome of education is not just about grades or money -- it is about living a life where the person feels good, functions well and does good for others.

PC: You've won several awards for innovative methods used in education. What, according to you, constitutes good teaching?

Prof. Waters: Good teaching is fundamentally about developing strong relationships with the students. Professor John Hattie’s research shows that the relationship between a teacher and a student is a stronger predictor of a student’s achievement than a teacher’s subject-matter knowledge. In my teaching, I use my passion for the field and a well-organised teaching framework to help the students learn. I get to know my students as individuals. I help them see how the course is relevant in their own life so they learn the academic content while also learning about themselves.

PC: Should parents and teachers work more in unison? What should be the nature of participation from both ends?

Prof. Waters: Parents and teachers are important adults in a child’s life and although they hold different roles, they can work together to help children learn about themselves. Regular communication and goal-setting involving the child, parent and teacher is very beneficial.

PC: You have often spoken about the role of a school in ensuring a child’s mental well-being. Can you please explain the connection?

Prof. Waters: Aside from home, children and teenagers spend the greatest amount of their time at school. This means that schools are shaping the identity and mental health of students in addition to shaping their academic knowledge and skills. As such, schools need to offer programs that build positive identities and increase mental health of their students. Identity and mental health are formed during childhood and teenage years. The teenage years are also the developmental period where people are most likely to suffer from mental illness. If a teenager suffers from mental illness, it increases his/her chances that mental illness will re-occur in adulthood.

PC: That’s a great point. We are very keen to know your personal style of parenting? Is it any different from what you advocate?

Prof. Waters: I use a strength-based approach (at home too) with my two children (8 and 12 years old) and I have placed my focus on helping them develop their strengths of character and a moral compass. As they grow older, they will have an internal anchor that guides them in life’s decisions. Kindness is a priority in my family. We allow each other to make mistakes and practise forgiveness. I have spotted my children’s talents such as their creativity and I nurture that by having art supplies at home. I encourage them to draw and paint on weekends. My children have also joined a circus club which brings out their creativity and playfulness. I am also a big fan of routine and teach my children good habits.

PC: What advice do you have to give to modern parents - our readers?

Prof. Waters: Be patient, have perspective, know yourself truly and know your children truly. Be brave and have the courage to go against the trends of social comparison. Have faith that your child is a good person who has strengths and it is these strengths that will bring him happiness and success in life.