According to relationship researcher John Gottman, that’s the “magic ratio.” When he observed couples over time, the number one predictor of happy, enduring relationships was an average of five positive interactions to every negative interaction.
Being a “5-to-1” parent isn’t easy. At bedtime last night, I was batting 1-to-3.
And when do our kids need our warmth the most? In the middle of homework stress, screentime battles, grocery store meltdowns, morning rush, bedtime drama, social flair-ups…
In other words, they need it the most when it’s the hardest to give.
Dr. Sharon Saline, an ADHD expert and an Intrepid Ed News parent columnist, once told me that she estimates the positive-to-negative feedback ratio for ADHD children is more like 1:15. Kids often feel like adults only notice when they “mess up,” not when they try, she said, so they grow wary of feedback.
“We have to pay attention to kids trying, even if they are not succeeding,” said Saline. “We have to focus on the process more than the product. When we notice that they are actually turning in homework four-fifths of the time when it used to be two-fifths? Well, that’s progress.”
So how do we improve the positive-to-negative interaction ratio?
1. Practice Reflective Listening
Listening — really listening — is a positive interaction.
When Ned Johnson and William Stixrud — authors of “What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home” — interviewed teens, they asked: “Who do you feel closest to? And what is it about that person that helps you feel close?” Teens responded: I feel closest to the person who listens to me without judgment.
We show we are listening when we use language that validates and reflects back their feelings:
- That sounds tough.
- I’m sorry that happened.
- I can see why you are upset
- That sounds exciting!
- I think I get it. Are you saying____?
- Tell me more about ___________.
As Johnson shared at a recent parent workshop:
When parents offer suggestions — even really sensible ones — most children often “bounce them away,” said Johnson. “We start giving all the things to try and they will reflexively give us all the reasons it won’t work.”
Instead, he said parents should seek first to understand, show an interest in their child’s interests, ask non-leading questions and practice listening carefully and then reflecting back what you hear with phrases such as: “Let me see if I can get this straight . . . Do I have that right?”
2. Say, “I love watching you . . .”; “Thank you for . . . “; and “I noticed . . .”
Like many parents, I’ve read the research that cautions against overpraising kids — that by overemphasizing, say, academic accomplishments (“100 on your test! Look how smart you are!”), we can inadvertently pile on the pressure and make them more risk-averse.
But I don’t worry too much about all that. Honestly, I think our kids can sense our motivation. If we reserve our praise for academic and athletic achievements, we are revealing to them what’s important to us. So we better do a regular self-check on our priorities.
Beyond that, I err on being unstingy and expansive with my kids and my students — to echo the words of Mr. Rogers: “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”
And for this purpose, my go-to sentence starters are “I love watching you . . .”; “Thank you for . . . “; and “I noticed”
- I love watching you dance.
- I love listening to you read to your brother.
- Thank you for your help with dinner tonight.
- Thank you for being understanding when I was stressed this morning.
- I noticed how you included the new kid on the playground.
- I noticed that you walked the dog without my asking.
Harvard psychologist Susan David introduced me to the word “sawubona,” a Zulu greeting from her native South Africa. It means, “I see you.” These types of comments say to kids, “I see you.” And we all want to be seen.
3. Post-it, Text-it, Or Say it To Someone Else
My daughter is an expert eavesdropper. So sometimes I use that to my advantage — sharing positive observations about her with her dad, her grandma, a neighbor, or her teachers when I know she’s in earshot.
One friend shared that when her middle-schooler was in a “don’t-talk-to-me” phase, she started leaving her morning post-it notes on the bathroom mirror — “I love you!” or “Good luck on your try-out today.” Months later, she discovered that her daughter had saved all of these notes in her desk drawer. Texting can also be a quick way to send a message of care. Our kids are listening, even when listening means reading.
4. Let Your Eyes Say It
Positive interactions don’t need to be verbal. Many years ago, I heard an Oprah interview with the novelist Toni Morrison. Morrison described how, when her children came into the room, she thought she was showing care by fussing over their appearance, “to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up.”
But that was not what they were looking for, she said. Instead, she offered a different measure for care, “Does your face light up when your kid walks in a room?” Does your expression say, I’m so glad you are here?
Parenting is beautifully messy work. We bump up against each other and fiddle with each other’s most vulnerable buttons. But Morrison’s words offer a simple anchor point; something that I can do every day. When my kids come down cranky in the morning, I can offer them a smile. When they come home from school, my eyes can say “I’m so happy you’re here.” And when they go to bed at night, I can muster up a final “I love you,” even if the evening went awry.
I’m working on that 5-to-1, not as a mathematical exercise, but because I want my children to know that our relationship is a safe landing place. They are seen, they are known, and they are loved. All the time.