Book Review: The Strength Switch

Waters, L. (2017).  The strength switch: How the new science of strength-based parenting can help your child and your teen to flourishNew York, NY: Avery.

“He’s not coming back” muttered my supervisor in a defeated exhale.  Deep down I already knew this as he had been gone since day three, but I’d held out hope that the new special education teacher would return.  Instead of being his Instructional Assistant for the Academic Support classes as planned, I would become the long-term substitute.

With no time to plan, I handed out white sheets of paper and asked the students to write their name and the academic classes they were taking.  I instructed them to think about and write down their strengths and any concerns they had about their classes.

To my surprise these high school students could not articulate their strengths and even though I asked about their concerns regarding specific classes, most simply wrote down their diagnoses and labels; ADHD, Bipolar, and Anxiety Disorder were the most highly represented.

Emotional recovery from flipping through those 25 sheets of paper wouldn’t truly come until months later when I stumbled on a video by Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Education & Workforce Development at Gallup, called The “Why” of Strengths and the “How” of Hope.  Strength-based education immediately became an interest of mine, and I was putting small doses of it into practice in my classroom every day.

So when Sara Smith of Parenting for Creativity told me about The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish by Lea Waters, PhD, I knew I had to read it.  Lea Waters is the President of the International Positive Psychology Association, Professor and Founding Director of Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Melbourne, Chair in Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, TEDx speaker and more.

Dr. Waters immediately gets the reader’s attention and creates the desire to know more in Chapter One entitled Standing for Strength in a World Obsessed with Weakness.  She writes “We may feel so pressured to help our children grow into the person society says they should be that we may not be allowing them to grow into the person they actually are” (p. 5).  Parenting is a creative act and conformity, as we all know, stifles creativity.  As a student of creativity, it wasn’t hard to make connections like this throughout the book.

Waters frames the challenges and overwhelming nature of parenting today by likening parents to 24/7 CEOs of our kids’ lives.  She says “I think the best approach is one that supports your child’s ability for self-development, so that over time your child has the tools to take on the mantle of CEO” (p. 6) of their own lives.   This approach helps a child develop optimism and resilience; Waters warns that “we mistakenly believe that the way to make our kids optimistic and resilient is to weed out all their weaknesses” (p. 7).

Her solution, Strength-Based Parenting (SBP), is focusing on your child’s strengths and cultivating contexts where they can use their strengths more.  She goes on to articulate the four negative default thinking processes that make becoming a strength-based parent challenging. The technique she developed to overcome these defaults is a mental shift from weaknesses to strengths called the Strength Switch.  Creativity practitioners familiar with affirmative judgment will see how this concept sounds similar and may wonder if reading this book is even worth it.  Those who already embody the deferral of judgment and who are adept at using affirmative judgment in every aspect of their lives may not find this book as enlightening as I have. Being only two years into my study of creativity I consider this a valuable in-depth study of affirmative judgment.

She ensures the reader clearly understands what strengths are and the three signs that indicate their presence:

  1. Performance – being good at something;
  2. Energy – feeling good doing it;
  3. High use – choosing to do it (p. 65).

Part Two: Building Strengths is comprised of six chapters which include strategies to employ that support the Strength Switch.  Each chapter is packed with easy to read, yet scientifically-backed research methods to transform your parenting approach.

There is no way for me to adequately highlight the essence of all six chapters so I’ll focus on Chapter 9 entitled Strength-Based Living in the Real World because it made the biggest impact on me.  This chapter covers discipline styles and highlights the difference between punishment and discipline, shame and guilt.  It explains “whereas guilt-based discipline tells children what not to do, strength-based discipline goes a step further, letting our kids know what they can do – reminding them of strengths they possess to address the problem” (p. 255-256).  Challenging behaviors are reframed as “lapses in strength or as strength breakdowns” (p. 256).  The five questions for diagnosing strength breakdowns are:

  1. Is it strength overuse?
  2. Is it strength underuse?
  3. Is it the flip side or shadow side of a strength?
  4. Could it be a blocked strength?
  5. Could it be forced overuse of a weakness or of a learned behavior? (p. 256-264)

Tactics and a Three Ps framework for helping your child confront their weaknesses head-on are presented after these questions.

Even though my children are already adults, I gained insight that will be valuable in my relationship with them.  While the book frames strength-based science for the parent reader, educators will easily be able to apply the approaches with their students. Dr. Waters was originally an organizational psychologist when she started this work; the reader who commits to adopting a strength-based lens should anticipate experiencing positive results in other personal and work relationships.

While an individual parent can go through this book alone, I believe this would be ideal for a Parenting Book Club.  While not a workbook per se, the exercises woven throughout the chapters can spur action especially with peer support and accountability.  So, why not start a book club in your home, at your job, church or via Google Hangout?  And, if you are a teacher, I implore you to explore Dr. Waters work in schools.