Saturday, April 30, 2011

Switch the ratio

Widely noted for his studies on marital success, Dr. John Gottman has identified what he calls the 'golden ratio' that can help predict the long term stability of relationships. To sum up, he notes that relationships that are stable and have high satisfaction are characterized by a 5:1 ratio. That is, during conflict, for every 1 negative interaction (criticism, invalidation, hostility), there need to be 5 positive interactions (asking questions, showing kindness, affection), just to achieve balance.

I have a hunch that although Gottman's research is directed at marital relationships, there is a lesson to be learned about our relationships in general.  I frequently have the opportunity to visit with parents about parenting issues.  I sometimes ask parents to evaluate the ratio of their interactions with their children, especially during conflict.  When we honestly look at how we react to our children, we frequently find that as parents, we allow our frustration, anger, and annoyance to mar our interactions.  We criticize, put down, subtly invalidate, and otherwise behave in ways that our children interpret negatively.  Consider this scenario:

Kid: Dad, can (best friend) spend the night on Friday?
Dad: I don't think so, sweetie.  We've got a lot going on Saturday and it would mean we had to do a lot of rescheduling.
Kid: (pouting) You *never* let my friends spend the night.
Dad: (feeling disrespected, speaking sarcastically) Oh, right.  You *NEVER* get *ANYTHING* you want to do. 
Kid: (changing tactics) Please, Dad?  I promise we won't stay up too late and I'll be good for the rest of the weekend...
Dad: (not willing to negotiate) What? You think I'm going to change my mind?  How about you be good all weekend and THEN I'll decide whether (best friend) can stay next weekend?
Kid: (resorting to pouting) Ohhhh... that's not fair!  (Sibling) gets to have friends over all the time!
Dad: Quit being such a whiner!  I'm tired of having to tell you over and over that whining doesn't work.

On the surface, it sounds like a pretty typical exchange between a parent and child, right? Dad is sticking to his guns and kid shouldn't be so disrespectful.  Tally up the negative interactions, though.  Sarcasm, rhetorical questions to make his point, invalidation, hyperbole... If we apply the golden ratio, Dad would need to offer about 20 positive bids just to balance out his words.  Now, you may note that the kid in that scenario was inviting Dad to behave that way.  There was probably some past history that led Dad to reach his conclusions.  However, Dad had a choice in his responses and chose to respond the way he did, so even though the kid's behavior wasn't ideal, we need to keep ourselves accountable for our example as parents.  How will we ever expect our kids to learn about healthy relationships unless we are willing to be responsible for our own feelings and behaviors toward our children?

What if we were willing to try an experiment in our homes.  Just for a day or two, whether we have conflictual situations or normal interactions... what if we strove to overload our relationships with positive interactions.  What if we looked for what our kids were doing that was right and good and commented on those things?  What if we overlooked every minor infraction (there are a bunch of those, right?  From being messy to fidgeting when they are supposed to be still) and just let them go without undue attention?  What if we went out of our way to set up situations where we know our kids will do well and then praise the heck out of them?  Here are some things I brainstormed in just a few minutes that my kids did today (and I didn't even get to see them very much today) that I can praise them for:

Mary Hannah: woke up and got dressed with no fussing, packed her own backpack and lunch, encouraged her siblings in the car on the way to school, entertained herself on the computer at (an appropriate and fun website), used earbuds to listen to her music when she was in a room full of other people so she wouldn't bother them with her music.
Ethan: Woke up with little prompting this morning, remembered that it was waffle day and reminded me, didn't argue with Ele when she claimed it was her turn to ride shotgun (it wasn't), played with Timothy without incident, accepted redirection when he got up and didn't want to go back to bed.
Ele: cuddled with me for a few minutes in the morning after she got dressed, greeted me at the door tonight and showed me that she'd cleaned up her room and made her bed without being told, shared space with her brother when they both wanted to sit in the same chair at the same time, cleaned off her plate this morning without being asked.

Now, I could let those incidents go by without comment.  Honestly, most of those things are normal expectations.  I could just wait for them to stop doing something or to mess up and do something wrong and then fuss at them for messing up.  But that happens all too often.  I'd like to spend less time trying to fix what I think is going wrong and more time helping things go right.

I also want to point out that most of those things I listed were accomplishments, something they'd done.  I want to try and praise them for those things, but also (and more importantly), I want to praise my children for who they are, for their character traits which prompt that behavior: initiative, kindness, generosity, helpfulness, affirmation, encouragement, patience, consideration.

I wonder what my household would look like if I changed the ratio?  I wonder if I'd notice that before asking my children to change, I needed to change how I looked at things and handled things.  I wonder if anyone is willing to assess their family functioning and see if their ratio could stand to be adjusted a little more to the positive side.  I'll admit it is challenging.  In fact, outside (and internal) stressors constantly pick away at my ability to accomplish this feat.  Than again, most things that are worthwhile aren't very easy, but they are usually very rewarding. 

Thanks, Dr. Gottman, for doing the research that gives us a goal.  Thanks, parents who challenge me to do better by my own kids. 

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