This quarter, in partnership with the Bloomington and Normal Public Libraries, we have been promoting The Strength Switch by Lea Waters, PhD. The “Strength Switch” is a technique utilized in strength-based living that involves switching our focus from the negative to the positive or from weaknesses to strengths. It sounds simple. But is it? And, does focusing on strengths really make that big of a difference?
According to the author, we all have a negativity bias, our children included, that causes us to “see what’s wrong faster and more frequently than what is right.” This bias operates at the preconscious level. We don’t even know it is happening. If you have read Gavin De Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear, he is talking about how the negativity bias, when listened to, helps keep you safe. This is a real positive. The problem is, it can keep us from seeing what is good.
The downside for parenting is that it directs us to see and focus on the things a child does wrong far more often than we see what they do right. In fact, it can completely overshadow their positives. To make it worse, our children have their own negativity bias. So, unless we or someone else tells them specifically that they have strengths, the negativity bias can magnify criticism to the point where a child may think they have no strengths. Indeed, I have seen this happen.
We have an activity we take out in the community known as our Tree of Strength. We have been taking it out to community events since about 2011. And, although the tree has changed, the impact remains the same.
The very first time we took the Tree of Strength out in the community, it was the Cultural Festival. It was at Miller Park. We would pull people over to our table by asking them to help us with our Community Tree of Strength. Telling them something like: “Did you know the things that make you special, unique and wonderful, also help your family and come all the way out to make our community a better place for all of us. Our goal today is to see how full of strengths we can make our tree. Please take a minute to write down one of your personal strengths, something you are proud of.” We direct them to our word bank for help with ideas but assure them it doesn’t have to be one of our ideas.
Well, we had been at it for a while and the tree was filling. What was amazing, is that we thought it was a good idea but we didn’t know how magic it would be. Every time someone went to write a strength on a leaf or had a parent share a strength they saw in them to place on a leaf, we saw a smile.
Then, a little boy we will call Michael, showed up at the table with a group of friends and relatives. Michael was about 10 years old. Everyone but Michael got busy writing his or her strengths on a leaf and smiling. He looked at me and said, “I ain’t got none.” The interesting thing is, this young man went to my children’s grade school. I knew he had spent more time in the principal’s office than perhaps all of the children in the school combined. But, I looked at him and said, “You ain’t got none? Let’s take a look at my word bank and see if anything sounds like you.” Then, I started through the list. Nothing the first 10 strengths or so. Eventually, I stumbled on one where he said, “Well, maybe… kinda…” I said, “Well, maybe kinda… Let’s put it on a leaf.” That is when the magic happened. A smile! Only, he didn’t stop there, he wanted to keep going. He ended up filling out several leaves before heading out with his friends. Then, I smiled, knowing we had helped him see potential in himself. A view a person has to have to make good decisions for themselves, their family and the community.
According to research shared in this book, parents who utilize a strength-based approach have teenagers that report better psychological outcomes, including:
- higher levels of life satisfaction
- higher amounts of positive emotions such as joy and hope
- a better understanding of their own strengths
- using their strengths to help them meet homework deadlines
- using their strengths to help deal with friendship issues
- coping with stress in more proactive ways
- lower levels of day to day stress
And, to make it even better, there are personal benefits for parents that develop a strength-based approach to living.
If this has peaked your interest, we encourage you to check out The Strength Switch by Lea Waters, PhD. Copies are available at both the Bloomington and Normal Public Libraries.