Focus on strengths, not weaknesses

Guiding light: Parents and teachers should help children internalise the idea that every person has their own constellation of skills and attributes by which they can navigate the world.

Suman is struggling with Math. I need to find a tutor.

I’m worried that Tanya will lose marks in board exam due to shoddy writing.

Nitin needs to be more attentive in class. He can do much better if he focuses.

Rima has lost marks for tardiness, as she submitted her projects late this term.

These statements, by parents and teachers, puts the spotlight on children’s weaknesses. Be it difficulty in a specific subject, lacking a skill or a flawed character trait, these remarks highlight what a child is deficient in. Which is fine if we also direct our gaze to what is going right with these kids.

Unfortunately, when adults assess kids, or even ourselves for that matter, we tend to dwell on the negatives. Further, we believe that if we fix what is broken, we will be more competent and complete. As a result, we pay scant attention to our strengths and those of our kids. In her book, The Strength Switch, psychologist Lea Waters bemoans that our penchant for harping on our shortcomings prevents us from exercising and growing our strengths and limits our potential. If we focus on remedying our downsides, Waters concedes that we will ‘survive.’ However, if we nurture our pluses, we can ‘thrive.’

Everyone has an upside

In order to embrace a strengths-based worldview, we must recognise that everyone has an upside. Waters provides three parameters by which we can identify strengths. Positive attributes that help us perform well, energise us and we choose often to exercise are our foundational assets. As Waters pithily sums it up, “Strengths are things we do well, often, and with energy.” They could include talents like a sense of rhythm, a steady hand, a facility with numbers, traits like being punctual, persevering or patient or interests like a fascination for cricket, chess or cheese.

As parents and teachers, we need to help children “internalise the idea” that every person has their own “unique constellation” of skills and attributes by which they can navigate the world. In order to achieve this, we must first conquer our “negativity bias.” According to Waters, “We’re programmed to see what’s wrong faster and more frequently than what’s right.” This “positive-negative asymmetry” is evident when we form first impressions of a person. Waters rightly notes that it is much harder to alter a negative initial appraisal than a more salubrious one.

As this negativity bias also creeps into our interactions with our kids, we need to make a more conscious and concerted effort to notice and appreciate strengths in them. So, when a child brings home a failing grade, and the red marks on the paper arouse your anger, suppress your reactive side. Even under dire circumstances, look for a strength in your kid. “I notice that you have attempted all the questions, which shows that you can persevere even when a test is hard”. “I am really proud that you told me your marks as soon as you came home. It shows that you are honest.” Initially, it may be hard for parents to respond in such a measured fashion, but if you keep doing it, you will find that it becomes habitual.

Be self-aware

Waters recommends that you first try and notice strengths in “low-stakes situations” that don’t evoke your negative demons. Praise your kids when both of you are calm and collected. But what happens when your 16-year-old son forgets his brand-new jacket at tennis class a week after losing his cell phone? First, you also need to fine-tune your own self-awareness so that you can catch yourself before you are flooded by anger at his carelessness. When you feel your frustration or anger rising, Waters urges you to ask yourself if your child has any strength he can deploy to handle the situation differently. Perhaps, you can tell him, “Sahil, you make friends wherever you go. Can you call one of your tennis buddies and ask him to check if your jacket is still in the waiting area?”

If you can’t pick a strength for your child on the fly, Waters urges you to direct the same question towards yourself. “What strength do I have that could help me handle this situation differently?” When Sahil lost his cell phone, you raved and ranted, but alas, that didn’t make him any more responsible. So, instead of succumbing to your first reaction, tap into your arsenal of strengths. You know that Sahil simply loves listening to anecdotes about your childhood. Tell him about the time you lost your wrist watch and then skipped dinner, thinking that would appease your mom. Before long, the mood lightens and your son volunteers, “I’ll go back to class and look for my jacket.”

Waters also exhorts us to abandon binary thinking when it comes to strengths. We believe that a kid is either good at something or not. However, most talents and traits rest on a continuum of varying degrees. More importantly, adults need to look beyond academic achievement to mine each child’s unique array of talents and traits.

Thus, a teen who is performing at a mediocre level at school may be spending hours honing her guitar skills. A child who dislikes writing may choose to express himself by cartooning. The student who fails to turn in her homework on time may exhibit unusually high levels of empathy for others. Waters wagers that you will probably discover that your kid has more pluses than you initially realised.

Of course, you also have to be open to the idea that strengths can wax and wane, and, at times, a child may even decide to pursue a different activity. Your best bet is to let your child take the lead as pressuring kids to continually excel at a strength can also backfire. Also, don’t forget that everyone needs breaks and periods of rest to recharge and function optimally. In addition, strengths can also be double-edged if they are overextended or used inappropriately. Being considerate can morph into subservience and patience can meld into passivity.

When we talk about strengths to kids, it also helps that we give specific feedback as opposed to generic platitudes. Instead of saying, “Good job,” we may add, “I like the way you first created a prototype before doing your project.” When your praise pinpoints a “child’s effort, improvement, technique, or strategy,” they get concrete feedback on what they are doing right, and are more likely to build on that facet.

By adopting a strengths-based outlook, adults can be a nurturing presence in the lives of children. If they are given adequate time, space, opportunity and encouragement, then all kids have a better chance of reaching their potential, each in their own, unique way.

(The author is director, PRAYATNA)

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