It can be tricky to raise well-rounded outdoor kids. You want to expose them to a variety of sports and activities without turning the pursuit of adventure into a daily grind that leaves them tired, overscheduled, and burned out. Talk about a backfire.
Australian positive psychologist Lea Waters has a solution: Focus on what your kids love and what energizes them, and let the rest go. This is the premise behind her new book, The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen Flourish. Strength-based parenting is deceptively simple: To raise confident, well-adjusted, resilient children, zero in on their strengths, not their weaknesses.
Don’t worry, it’s human to be negative. Being able to assess challenges and risks has kept us out of harm’s way for millennia. “Even people with the sunniest personalities have what scientists call a ‘positive-negative asymmetry’ and will pay more attention to negative rather than positive information,” Waters says. In the real world, that leads to focusing on the things kids aren’t doing—taking care of their dishes, doing their homework without being asked—instead of the things they’re already doing well.
To break yourself of the habit, do as Waters suggests and “flip the strength switch.” Here’s how.
Discover Their Strengths
This can range from character traits—humility, empathy, kindness, humor—to abilities like music, climbing, or mountain biking. Don’t know how to identify their strengths? Look for activities they choose to do often or the characteristics that seem to energize them. For ideas, check out a list of 118 strengths on Waters’ website, and take her quiz to see to what extent you’re already practicing SBP.
Help Them Grow
Give them more opportunities to develop these strengths while nixing things they don’t truly love in favor of much-needed free time. But don’t sweat it if one of their favorite activities doesn’t seem like a true strength. If your ten-year-old loves to ski with her friends but doesn’t seem to be progressing much, you don’t need to cut skiing from the schedule—just change the way you look at it. “If she’s doing something that’s giving her a sense of self or building relationship skills, that’s a great thing,” Waters says. Maybe, in fact, she’s actually tapping into another strength—like connecting with others and her love of mountains. “It’s just a matter of tuning in more closely to our children,” Waters says.
Waters flips the negativity bias upside down by playing “what went well” every night at dinner with her son and daughter. Each person takes a turn describing a good moment from their day and which of their strong points helped them in that moment—be it finishing fast in a cross-country meet, navigating a conflict with friends on the playground, or acing a spelling test after studying hard all week. Parents can chime in as well: Maybe you finally faced your fears and skied a chute that you’d been too afraid to try for years; modeling the strength switch will help your kids flip theirs. Waters also suggests writing “strength letters” to your kids outlining their positive attributes and creating a weekly strength board highlighting what worked and why.
“Not everything has to be about cultivating their strengths,” Waters says. “Sometimes kids just need to be kids and play.” When we give kids a chance to chill out and goof off with something they love, the brain slows down and enters a state of calm alertness. It’s not resting; it’s growing. “Slightly slower electrical brain waves are responsible for big-picture thinking, creativity, and integrating who we are at our core.” Allow them free time to shoot baskets, make smoothies, or listen to music—anything where the brain is having some kind of engagement besides being fed TV or social media. “It’s this little sweet spot where the brain isn’t in task mode, but it’s not in passive mode either,” Waters says. In other words, the activity formerly known as playing.