Professor Lea Waters AM, PhD, is the Founding Director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, where she has held an academic position for two and a half decades and has published 110+ scientific articles. Lea is on the Science Board of the Greater Good Science Center at The University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish.

My stomach knotted as I came into my son’s room expecting to see him doing homework, and instead I found him playing ‘Fortnite’. Again. Just yesterday, I’d spoken with him (read: snapped at him) about screen time. Today, an argument began. Again. He felt angry. I felt frustrated. We both felt misunderstood.

Why do we focus on the things about our children that concern us more than the things that delight us? Why do we find it so hard to resist the urge to criticise, nag, and worry? Blame it on our brains. Our ‘negativity bias’, an ancient survival mechanism, hardwires us to spot problems in our environment more quickly than we spot the things that are going well. I call it the Dirty Window Syndrome: a clean window doesn’t attract your attention; you look straight through it. But a dirty window is something you notice. What’s more, your focus on one specific part of the window – the dirt – means you’ll often fail to see that the rest of the window is still clean and showing you a beautiful view.

It’s the same with our kids. When things are going well, we take it for granted; but when things are going badly, that spot of dirt on the window snaps our attention into sharp focus. The dirt, in my case Nick’s gaming, grows from a small spot to a big stain.

By learning how to shift your attention to your son’s strengths (the clean part of the window), you can override the negativity bias and prevent the problems from getting blown out of proportion – all while building up resilience and optimism in your sons. In my own research, children and teenagers who have parents who help them to see and use their strengths enjoy a raft of well-being benefits, including experiencing more positive emotions and flow, being more persistent, feeling more confident, and being more satisfied with their lives. Kids and teens with strength-based parents are also less stressed, cope better with friendship issues, cope better at meeting homework deadlines, and get better grades. 

Parents benefit, too. In one of my studies, published in the International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, parents were split into two groups. One group took a course teaching them how to identify and cultivate their children’s strengths, while the second group had no training and continued to parent as usual. The results showed that the parents who went through the course felt happier with their children and more confident about their own parenting skills after the course when compared with beforehand. Those who didn’t go through the course showed no shift in happiness and confidence.

Strength-based parenting isn’t about lavishing your kids with false and excessive praise. Nor does focusing on strengths mean we ignore problems. Being strength-based allows parents to approach weaknesses from a larger context – seeing the whole window, not just the dirt. In my case, I’m able to put Nick’s gaming into perspective by reminding myself, ‘He’s a good kid. He’s creative and funny. He’s social and loyal, and he likes to build good relationships (most of the time).’In the grand scheme of things, he’s heading in the right direction. Despite my overactive worry button, he is actually doing OK. I can breathe a sigh of relief.

When I use a strength-based approach, two important things occur. First, I am able to see that there are strengths involved in gaming that Nick can use for the rest of his life. The self-regulation and problem-solving Nick uses to choose his moves, and the grit he uses to continue even when his points are low, are the same strengths he can use to better monitor his screen time and balance this with his homework. When I comment on the humor and loyalty he uses to cheer up his friends when they die in the game, he sees how he can apply these to his relationships with his family. Second, because I am calmer and able to engage more with Nick about the benefits of the game, he is more receptive to our conversations about balancing screen time with his homework, sports, and family time. When he sees that I am not demonising technology and I am giving him a fair amount of time to play, he knows he also needs to be reasonable when we ask him to get off. As a result, the negotiations about screen time are far more fruitful and less combative. This doesn’t mean I have all the answers. The conversation about ‘Fortnite’ is an ongoing one, and most days Nick tries to sneak in extra time. But the days I am strength-based are the days when he shuts the game off more quickly and more happily.

Our negativity bias helps us to survive, but our strengths help us to thrive. Showing our children how to harness their strengths is a key tool for their happiness and a recipe for effective and enjoyable parenting. It’s not a ‘cure-all’, but it is most definitely a win-win!