The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish

The extraordinary results of focusing on our children’s strengths rather than always trying to correct their weaknesses

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Karsen: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish By Lea Waters

In her work as a psychologist, she has seen what effects focusing on a child’s strengths can have on child development and the well-being of the whole family. In this title, Waters demonstrates how parents can employ strength-based parenting in family scenarios to focus on their child’s strengths rather than being overly critical.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, how does the author describe strength-based parenting?

Vincent: Lea Waters is a psychologist who has been researching for over 20 years in the field of child education. In this title, Dr. Waters presents a scientifically grounded solution based on the concept of strength-based parenting. It’s all about guiding children toward their strengths, instead of focusing on their weaknesses. Parents will also benefit by learning to stay mindful of their own behavior and understanding how to communicate with their children.

Karsen: So the whole idea of the strength switch is to shift focus from your child’s faults to their strengths. But, how often do parents focus on faults? What’s the need for this switch?

Vincent: Dr. Waters says it’s human nature to see faults in everything, rather than only positive aspects. For example, say you’re looking at a beautiful, old vase, you’re sure to first spot the cracks and scratches on the glaze. The same concept applies to parenting. If your attention is selective, all you’re going to see are your child’s faults before their strengths.

Karsen: What’s an example of when you would need to look past your child’s faults and focus on their strengths?

Vincent: The author gives a great example of her and her son, Nick. He got a bike for his 8th birthday and she told him to park it on the deck when he wasn’t using it. Nick kept forgetting and dropping it by the front door on his way inside the house. After the repeated reminders, Waters got fed up and snapped at Nick. This is a case of selective attention; the author was focusing exclusively on a single negative incident and nothing else.

Karsen: I get that though, I’d be frustrated if I were her too. How could she have gone about this using the strength switch?

Vincent: The strength switch is used to switch the parent’s attention to the child’s strengths. The next day, despite the ongoing bike issue, she deliberately forced herself to think about her son’s positive qualities before she entered the house.

By making the switch, she was able to notice all the positive things that Nick had been up to, like enthusiastically and lovingly welcoming her home. He’d also started to show that he could organize himself – he’d put his shoes and lunch box away rather than just dropping them somewhere around the house.

Karsen: That’s great that she notices those positives, but what about the unresolved bike issue?

Vincent: Over the following weeks, the author brought up the bike issue again. But this time she did so without being aggressive or overly critical. She also paired it with compliments by pointing out everything Nick had remembered to do and how well organized he could be.

Karsen: Oh, and that would probably encourage him to focus on his own strong skills like organizing and eventually put the bike away on his own.

Vincent: That’s exactly what happened. That positive feedback worked its magic and Nick soon started to park his bike in its spot before coming into the house. It all began with the strength switch.

Karsen: When the author talks about strengths does she talk about them in terms of genetic strengths or strengths you acquire based on your environment?

Vincent: By the time a child is 2 or 3 years old, it become more clear to their parents what their strengths are. For example being able to recognize shapes and patterns easily, or have a natural love for music. In terms of where these traits come from, the answer is partly in genetics and partially shaped by your environment. There are 2 studies that have shown that some strengths are in part genetic.

There was a 1986 study of fraternal twins at the University of Western Ontario. Researchers found that up to 50% of the differences in strengths such as altruism or empathy found in identical and fraternal twins were shaped by genes.

Further, a 2007 study at Colorado State University confirmed this finding. It showed that the extent of an individual’s creativity is 50 percent determined by genes. The same was true of cognitive abilities, self-control and to a lesser extent, physical strength.

Karsen: So the other 50% that is not shaped by genetics is shaped by environment, right?

Vincent: Yes, the environment has an important role in the development of your child’s strengths. So when your child is in an environment where we steer them to work to their abilities, their genetic ability gets multiplied by repeated effort in a given area.

The author gives an example of a child who is naturally social. If that ability is nurtured early on, he will be identified as a sociable person from a young age. He will therefore be given leadership roles by parents and teachers and this will increase the natural development of his skills.

Another example is a young girl who takes to water like a fish. If you give her the chance to take swim lessons and train, she’ll be more likely to be targeted by talent scouts, which, may give her access to better coaches and facilities.

Karsen: So to maximize their strengths you should give your child an environment where they can reinforce their genetic strengths.  Another question many parents debate over is should young children be encouraged to explore a variety of activities to find their strengths?

Vincent: Yes it may get tiring if a child is switching hobbies all the time and jumping from drawing to playing the trumpet to playing soccer. But, the author says this is actually pretty normal and young kids should be encouraged to test various strengths.

There is scientific research to back this. The author cites a 2004 study conducted by neuroscientists found that from the age of 6 until adolescence, the brain’s density dramatically increases. Neurologists have labeled this a phase of overproduction when the brain is producing more cells and neural connections than it will actually ever need.

As parents, we see the effects of that brain development as we watch kids that love to get involved in new activities, new sports, collect new objects like cards, games, instruments and do so while being social and making friends.

Karsen: This time sounds pretty chaotic. So as a parent do you just observe your child as they try new things and work out which of their abilities seem strongest and what sparks the most motivation and enjoyment for them?

Vincent: Exactly, then once you find those things you can gently nudge them towards those activities a little more. Then once they reach the stage of adolescence, those recognized strengths get to be consolidated. Dr. Waters says that at this phase, the number of brain cells gradually diminishes and is a process that continues for the rest of adult life. This simply means the brain is prepping itself to specialize in certain areas by strengthening certain neural circuits rather than creating new ones.

Karsen: That makes sense. Going back to trying lots of new things. As a child, I struggled with maintaining attention and staying focused on some tasks without getting bored. Does attention or lack thereof, show parents anything about strengths?

Vincent: Actually yes. According to a study done by developmental psychologist H.A. Ruff, 3-year-olds can’t stay focused for more than 3-5 minutes at a time, and for children between 6 and 12, the average time is no more than 10 minutes. It isn’t until adolescence that children start to reach the same level of attention-sustaining abilities as adults. How this applies to strengths is if your child shows the ability to focus on a single activity for any length of time, it indicated they are likely putting one of their natural strengths to use.

Karsen: Is there an example of this?

Vincent: Yes Waters recalls working with a family whose child was very distracted and overactive. He was given some legos and for hours the 3-year-old became immersed in building legos and not a peep was heard from him.

This was extraordinary because it showed that the ability to focus on one activity like that demonstrates a special strength in that area. For the child playing legos, that might indicate good spatial reasoning and high levels of creativity.

Karsen: Wow that’s very interesting. So parents should encourage and praise their kids when they see this kind of concentration and let them know what they’re good at. It also probably makes parenting easier since your child will be happy keeping themselves busy for a longer period of time.

Vincent: Yes and as a parent, it’s a victory when you find this. But, nevertheless, parents face challenging situations and won’t always have the chance to focus on their child’s strengths. For example, it’s inevitable to have a child throw a tantrum in front of you.

Karsen: When this does happen, what does Waters say you can do? Is there a strategy for parents to practice?

Vincent: Yes that strategy is mindfulness which Waters describes as a process that brings the mind into focus in 3 steps.

First, focus your concentration on a specific thing, like your breathing. Second, notice when your attention is wandering from the point of focus. Third, bring your attention back to the focus point.

This technique keeps you in tune with the present moment. It’s a method that can be employed to help you keep track of what thoughts and emotions you’re experiencing in any given situation.

Karsen: There’s no doubt that mindfulness is a helpful tool for parents to collect themselves and take a moment to calmly sort their emotions and clear their thoughts when dealing with difficult situations.

Vincent: Another mental muscle that needs to rest is self-control. The author notes that with parenting you find yourself using self-control often but it is a limited resource. You’re going to run out of self-control if you’re constantly resisting impulses, making decisions, and stressing out. Like parents, kids can’t maintain self-control at the end of a long day when they’re worn, they can’t help themselves. Instead of getting angry with them at the end of a long day, help them work out what they can do to pick themselves up. It doesn’t matter whether it's a snack, a nap or just some goofing around time, be sure that their self-control, and yours, get the break that’s needed.

Karsen: When implementing the strength switch, how does praise -or lack thereof- play a role in your child’s success?

Vincent: When raising children there are a few views when it comes to praise. Some people think praise reinforces positive behavior. Others believe it makes kids complacent and disdainful of the value of hard work. But in this title, Waters turns to what the science says. Essentially, the absence of praise can harm children’s development. Often parents don’t realize how little praise they give their children due to unclear communication.

For example, in a 1985 study, psychologist H.L. Barnes interviewed parents and children separately about their parents’ communication. The parents thought their communication was open and supportive. However, the children felt the opposite was true. There are serious consequences if children don’t feel approval, validation, or affection.

Waters says helpful praise is specific praise.

Karsen: What does it mean to be specific in your praise?

Vincent: In particular, it turns out that strength-based praise supports children and assists in their development.

Strength-based praise is specific and acknowledges a child's achievement, and it also recognizes and affirms those strengths that contribute to a child's accomplishment.

She gives an example of if your child brings a painting home from school.  Instead of a cursory “It’s beautiful, I love it!”, it’s better, as a parent, to explicitly acknowledge the child's endeavor and strength of creativity in using, for example, a certain combination of colors or tones.

Karsen: That makes it more personal and makes the value of that praise feel more genuine. What about when it comes to disciplining your child so they know what’s right and what’s wrong and how can parents clearly communicate that?

Vincent: The two most common methods employed by parents to guide children in changing behavior are by inducing guilt or shame.

The author notes that the difference between the two is crucial. Remember, although disciplining a child through guilt is acceptable, shaming, on the other hand, should be avoided at all costs.

Shame preys on the child’s very person. It makes them feel that who they are is being rejected.

Karsen: And you should never want to make your child feel like you are rejecting who they are, not just what they did that was wrong.

Vincent: Guilt works differently. When you employ it, you point at a child's action and encourage them to feel remorse for it. Imagine a child has forgotten to take her homework to school for the third time in a week. In this case, the parent could remind the child to be more aware of the importance of homework.

Karsen: Basically, guilt acts as a reminder of a child’s responsibilities. It also stimulates a child’s capacity for empathy and to feel remorse.

Vincent: Yes and there’s an aspect of guilt that you can use to educate your children. If you use the strength switch, you’ll find that a form of healthy guilt can be nurtured.

For instance, imagine your child has started teasing other kids at school. In this case, you’ll want to remind him or her of occasions when they displayed empathy and kindness. You could then express your disappointment that they didn’t use these special strengths this time. You’ll then discuss with them how to do better in the future, hopefully resulting in improved behavior.

Karsen: That’s very smart because it reinforces to your child how their strengths are part of their identity and should be used for good to be the best version of themself.

It sounds like the key takeaway from this title is that as a parent, it’s possible to guide your children into being happier and doing better both in school and in life. You can do this by encouraging their natural strengths to be the center of their activities and reminding them to pay attention to their strengths to notice what they naturally enjoy. On top of everything else, being mindful and using strength-based praise will also help to create a positive and supportive communication system between you and your child.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki.

Vincent: And I’m Vincent Phamvan.

Karsen: We’ll see you next time.


This game-changing book shows us the extraordinary results of focusing on our children’s strengths rather than always trying to correct their weaknesses. Most parents struggle with this shift because they suffer from a negativity bias, thanks to evolutionary development, giving them “strengths-blindness.” By showing us how to throw the “strengths switch,” Lea Waters demonstrates how we can not only help our children build resilience, optimism, and achievement but we can also help inoculate them against today’s pandemic of depression and anxiety.
As a strengths-based scientist for more than twenty years, ten of them spent focusing on strengths-based parenting, Waters has seen how this approach enhances self-esteem and energy in both children and teenagers. Yet more on the plus side: parents find it a particularly exciting and rewarding way to raise children. With many suggestions for specific ways to interact with your kids, Waters demonstrates how to discover strengths and talents in our children, how to use positive emotions as a resource, how to build strong brains, and even how to deal with problem behaviors and talk about difficult situations and emotions. As revolutionary yet simple as Mindset and GritThe Strength Switch will show parents how a small shift can yield enormous results.

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