How to engage children’s interests and support their strengths.
Most parents would agree that children are likely to thrive in a family atmosphere of “positiveness” – when parents are able to be supportive and encouraging, and nurture in their children positive expectations for their futures. (1) In the daily life of many families, however, positiveness has been eroded.
As we struggle to cope with the demands of being parents, with our uncertainty and stress, moments of joyfulness and pride in our children too often give way to argument and withdrawal. Sadly, many parents now report that being a parent does not bring greater happiness to their daily lives. (2)
In today’s post, I will discuss how parents can restore and strengthen positiveness in their relationships with their children. In subsequent posts, I will continue this discussion, with additional recommendations.
The emerging field of positive psychology offers new insights into the benefits of positive emotions, throughout our lives. Positive emotions have been shown to broaden our thinking; to speed our recovery from emotional distress; and to improve our health, our longevity, and the success of our marriages. Positive emotions increase our productivity at work and our willingness to give to others.
A plan to improve children’s emotional health therefore begins with an effort to strengthen positiveness in family life. Increased positiveness is a first step toward improving our relationships with our children – and toward more cooperative behavior.
• Express enthusiastic interest in your child’s interests, even if these are not the interests you would choose.
As parents, our enthusiastic responsiveness to our children’s interests is the surest way to engage them in meaningful dialogue and interaction, and a first principle of strengthening family relationships.
“Mommy, Can you sign me up for this?”
My therapeutic work with children has taught me, over and over, a fundamental lesson: Children respond to our enthusiastic expressions ofinterest in their interests with evident pleasure. Children enjoy this interaction, and they want more of it. Often, when I begin therapy with a child, after even a brief period of talking about his interests and engaging in animated play, he may comment, “Mommy, this is fun. Can you sign me up for this?” or “Can I come here every day?”
In three decades of talking with children, I have met few, if any, children who did not want to share their interests with their parents – and few who were not deeply disappointed when their parents, for whatever reason, did not respond with enthusiasm. Children in therapy frequently tell me, “I tried to show this to my mom, but she wasn’t interested.” This leads, first, to sadness and disappointment and, later, to resentment and withdrawal.
When parents respond with genuine interest in their child’s interests, most children soon begin to show more enthusiasm and emotional aliveness (and, often, less stubbornness). They are also likely to recover more quickly from moments of discouragement and frustration. These positive interactions seem to operate as a protective factor in children’s emotional lives, to confer some degree of immunity against the effects of emotional distress.
We need to frequently and actively share in our children’s interests, on a daily basis, beyond being present at their performances and athletic events. Find out what arouses their interest and become interested in it. Ask them about their collections – their cards and their dolls – and about the musicians, athletes and celebrities they admire. If they are only interested in watching television and playing video games, watch and play with them. Ask them to teach you the game. I have never met any child who did not want to show (and tell) his parents about the video games he liked to play.
I think of parents’ responsiveness to their children’s interests (along with enthusiastic play) as the psychological equivalent of good nutrition. Nutrition does not prevent all diseases or cure diseases once they have reached a certain stage. Still, good psychological nutrition is essential to emotional health and helps promote psychological immunity. And we know that these moments are important in the lives of our children – because children tell us about them.
I therefore make enthusiastic sharing of interests a first recommendation, or “prescription,” for the healthy parenting of all children, especially when families have become stuck in negative cycles of criticism, defiance, and withdrawal.
• Focus on their strengths.
In his important book, Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman reports a personal insight, a lesson he learned from his then 5-year-old daughter. “Raising children,” Seligman realized, was about “far more than just fixing what was wrong with them. It was about identifying and amplifying their strengths and virtues and helping them find the niche where they can live these positive traits to the fullest.”
I agree. We spend far too much time correcting our children’s mistakes, trying to help them improve, and not enough time recognizing and valuing what Seligman calls their “signature strengths.” Seligman suggests that, for all of us, our satisfaction in life derives, more than anything else, from the combination of engaging our signature strengths in a way that also helps others. (3)
In school, we teach children that it is important to do well in all their classes. In life, however, our success depends much more on doing one thing well. I recently learned that George Gershwin, as a young boy, was incorrigible, truant, and hyperactive – until he found music. And, of course, so was Babe Ruth – until (and perhaps after) he found baseball.
Even children with significant learning problems demonstrate areas of competence, or qualities of character, that should be a source of inner pride and a foundation for their future success. These strengths need to be recognized and supported. We should help children develop a different picture of themselves. In this picture, their strengths should be in the center, and their difficulties and frustrations should be in the corner, not the other way around.
(1) I have taken the word positiveness from a 1993 research study by Jean Dumas and Peter LaFreniere. Dumas and LaFreniere found that mothers of the most socially competent preschool children (in contrast to children who were rated by their teachers as anxious, aggressive, or average in their social skills) showed higher levels of positiveness (laughter, helping, approving, and affectionate behaviors) and more frequent expressions of positive feelings (for example, words of endearment and affectionate gestures) in their interactions with their children. The authors report, “Whenever competent children behaved positively, their mothers were likely to immediately reciprocate positively” (p. 1750). These mothers, of course, were not always positive with their children. When mothers were more positive with their children, however, children were more likely to respond to, rather than ignore, their mothers’ expressions of disapproval.
Dumas, J. E., and LaFreniere, P. (1993). Mother-Child Relationships as Sources of Support or Stress: A Comparison of Competent, Average, Aggressive, and Anxious Dyads. Child Development, 64, 1732–1754.
There is now a substantial body of developmental and clinical research that supports and extends these observations of preschool children. Almost all empirically validated programs to reduce oppositional behavior in young children now include increased positiveness – in the form of more child-directed interactive play, more expressions of enthusiasm, or more frequent statements of appreciation and praise – as an essential component.
(2) Senior, J. (2010). All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting. New York Magazine, July 12, 2010.
(3) Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic Happiness. New York: Simon and Shuster
(Originally published on PsychologyToday.com)