The Deficit Model vs the Gem Model

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (April 19, 2018)

I was once hosting a workshop for parents and asked them if they could each introduce their child to me. We went around the room and each parent told me their child’s gender, age and some characteristics. When talking about characteristics, the comments were mostly like this “my son is so argumentative, he always talks back”, “my daughter can’t focus at all”, “my son is so stubborn and just wants to do things his way” and the others sounded similar. I think partly it’s Chinese culture of not speaking highly of one’s child and partly how many parents have a deficit model of our child – where we identify something that is wrong, something that is missing and something we need to fix. So for example, the mother whose son “always talks back” sees him as having a lack of respect for her, that he is disobedient and she needs to get him to listen to what she says. While it may be true that he needs to grow in communicating respect to her, I think it’s damaging to look at our children and just see ‘what’s wrong’ with them without looking at ‘what’s right’.

And our culture is so good at looking at what’s wrong with someone or something. Just watching the news, it always highlights what’s wrong with the world, people are good at criticizing others and even in the education field, labels such as ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ is becoming so common place. We’re always attuned to looking at what’s wrong, what’s missing and what we need to fix.

But the problem with the deficit model is that firstly, it’s a negative perspective and also it’s like telling an anxious person not to be anxious – to focus on the anxiety, even if wanting for it to go away, will just highlight it further. I’m not saying that we don’t all have weaknesses that we need to overcome but I think we need to take a different perspective in looking at others and ourselves. Professor Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, looked at how traditional psychology tried to fix what was wrong with people and noticed that people could learn to be negative and helpless. Instead, he looked at how we can be positive and look at what’s right with people. And with that, came the character strengths model – that everyone has a combination of 24 character strengths, like gratitude, kindness, bravery, zest, social intelligence – strengths that make us unique and help us thrive in the world.

I like to call this strengths model a ‘gem model’. Gemstones are often hidden inside rock and rubble and have to be discovered and polished before they can shine. Similarly, strengths in a person have to be discovered, nurtured and developed before they can shine.

I think we all know this to be true but the hardest thing is attuning ourselves to constantly have this ‘gem model mindset’. When we see our child acting up, doing something wrong or when we compare our child with others who are better, it’s so easy to fall back into the deficit model.

So how do we train ourselves to have this ‘gem model mindset’? I think below are some ideas:

1. Spend time to think about the different ‘gems’ your child has

It may be easy to think of some skills and subjects your child may be strong at but what about the ‘gems’ of character? Is your child generous, patient, caring, loving or encouraging? How can you encourage your child to develop these ‘gems’ to have them grow?

2. Explore gems

Sometimes having new opportunities will give us the ability to discover a gem we didn’t know we had. I know for me, I didn’t know I had public speaking abilities until I was given a chance to try. What new opportunities can you offer your child to help them discover skills, talents or character strengths they didn’t know they had?

3. Change of perspective

This is the hardest part of the ‘gem model mindset’ – where we have to look for the positive even when we are shown the negative. When my child is being stubborn, I need to see that the ‘gem’ is that he has a mind of his own with his own ideas (which I think is a good thing) and part of nurturing the gem is to help him see that he can’t always have his way. Or if my child is being slow, I need to see that the ‘gem’ is that he is thoughtful and careful in his actions (also a good thing), but I also need to help him speed up on tasks he needs to speed up on.

Do you have a deficit model mindset or a gem model mindset? And how can we all develop a gem model mindset of looking at ourselves, our children and others? The world would be a much more beautiful and bright place with everyone shining as gems.









1. 花時間思考孩子擁有的「寶石」


2. 幫助孩子發掘「寶石」


3. 換個角度思考






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