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Love: It's All in the Ratio

May 9, 2009 | by Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.Assoc.

Love is the only real power a parent has.

An excerpt from Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice.

The most important parenting strategy is that of building a positive relationship. Although a parent cannot make a relationship all alone (it takes two people!), a parent can do those things that typically create the "soil" in which a positive relationship can grow. Keep in mind that love is the only real power a parent has. You can't beat children into accepting your values. You need to inspire them.

Ultimately, children will identify with a loved parent and want to emulate the parent's strongest positive traits. Children will work to please a parent they care for. They will also accept guidance and direction from such a parent. (This may take longer to show up in a "difficult" child, but even here, the effects of a positive relationship are dramatic.) Getting a child to listen or a teenager to cooperate is primarily about setting up the conditions under which they choose to do so. Besides being illegal to use brute force to accomplish these goals, it is an impractical methodology. Even children have free will.

What can parents do to lay the groundwork for a positive, loving relationship? They can maintain the magic ratio in parenting, what I call "The 80-20 Rule."

The 80-20 Rule

Eight out of 10 parenting moments should be pleasant ones from the child's point of view.

Simply put, parents' words and behaviors should feel good to the child 80% of
the time. That is, eight out of 10 parenting moments should be pleasant ones from
the child's point of view
. Ideally, 100% of parental interactions are meant for the
well-being of the child; however, not all interventions feel good to the child.
Although dental work is good for our teeth, it doesn't feel good to us and we don't
look forward to getting it done. If we had to endure dental work all day, every day,
we'd soon be insane. Similarly, criticism might be good for a child on occasion,
but endured all day, every day, it would soon cause severe mental illness. It's all in the ratio.

Typical good-feeling interactions include smiling, hugging, touching, giving
compliments, praising, using affectionate names, verbalizing love and affection,
listening, playing, joking, giving treats and gifts, showing understanding, showing
interest, sharing ideas and helping. (How much of this are you doing between
7:30 and 8:30 a.m.?) Even if a parent is singing a tune to himself while he is making
coffee in the kitchen, it counts as part of the 80% positive if children are
around to hear him. The happy singing sets a good-feeling mood in the house.
Similarly, parents having a little laugh between themselves counts as part of the
child's 80% if the child overhears it.

Typical bad-feeling interactions include yelling, criticizing, correcting, looking
angry or displeased, complaining, ignoring, reprimanding, threatening, punishing,
nagging, lecturing, interrogating, insulting, supervising, commanding, directing and
instructing. Note that the last three essentially amount to "asking a child to do something."

Simple requests are included in the bad-feeling interactions because people --
even children -- don't like being told what to do or asked to interrupt their current
activity. If a parent is in his or her own bad mood and is muttering curses under his
or her breath and slamming cupboard doors as he or she is making coffee, it counts
as part of the 20% negative allotment if the children are within hearing distance.
Similarly, if the parents are having a stressful, unpleasant or hostile interaction within
hearing distance of their child, it counts as part of the child's 20%.

What's in a Number?

What do you think your current positive-to-negative ratio is? If you want to find
out, ask your kids and spouse what they think, but make sure they include all of
your requests and instructions in their calculation. Alternatively -- and probably
more accurately -- turn on a video camera or tape recorder to record your interactions
with your children during three separate hours: the hour before school, the
dinner hour and the bedtime hour. Record yourself for several consecutive days or
longer so that your "natural" behavior will occur with your children rather than
your contrived "good parent" behavior that is inevitable on the first couple of

After you've recorded your interactions with your children, select several 10-minute sections to play back, stopping the tape every minute and noting whether
your behavior in the minute seems to be a "good-feeling" behavior (from the
child's point of view) or a "bad-feeling" behavior. Be sure to include all sarcastic
remarks, instructions, directions, requests, criticism and threats in the "bad-feeling"
communications. Remember that there are no "neutral" moments because human
interactions always have a feeling quality to them, even if only a very slight one.
How did you do?

Research shows that the average parent is giving 94% negative to only 6% positive attention!

Do you want to know how the average parent does? Remember, the average parent
"loves" his or her child! Most parents feel that they are giving lots of positive
attention to their kids. However, when they add up their minute-by-minute interactions,
the ratio is not likely to be anywhere close to 80-20! Research shows that
the average parent is giving 94% negative to only 6% positive attention! How is
that possible? Easy.

Picture a typical parent-child interaction at 5:30 p.m. in a home where there are
two boys aged 8 and 10. Look at Mom's words and decide whether each statement
would likely feel good or bad to the boys:

"David, please put your jacket in the closet, where it belongs."
"Josh, stop teasing the cat right now."
"Boys, let's get started on the homework. Get your books out."
"David, where is that page you were supposed to do? Why isn't
it here? I asked you to make sure you brought it home. I'm
going to have to give Mr. Spencer a call again. This is
totally unacceptable."
"No, Josh, you can't eat until we've finished this work."
"I know you don't like fish, but that's what we're having
tonight. Now get started on these questions. . ."

It's not that Mom doesn't love the boys. She obviously does! She wants them to
do well in school, she's clearly concerned about their habits, and she's prepared a
healthy dinner for them. Yet her sons experience her as a pain in the neck. The
ratio in the above communication is 100% negative to 0% positive. It's no fun
being around Mom! Would that ratio work in marriage? (I don't suggest you try
it to find out.)

Because so much of the parenting day consists of giving kids instructions, making
demands, offering corrections and criticisms and making threats, it is actually quite
challenging to create that 80-20 ratio. Challenging, but not impossible. Practice
makes it second nature (after 20 years or so), but even after only a few weeks, you'll
find it easier. And you will find that this ratio makes parenting much less stressful.

Here's a trick to get you started: in the morning, in the hour before the kids
leave for school, put eight pennies and two quarters in your right-hand pocket. Each
time you give a positive form of attention (a positive stroke), move one penny to
your left-hand pocket. Each time you give a negative form of attention, move one
quarter over to your left-hand pocket. You only have two quarters, so when you've
used them up, you must move the remaining pennies before you can give any
more negative strokes. When all the pennies and quarters are in your left pocket,
move them back to the right -- positive strokes move pennies and negative strokes
move quarters. You can continue this game when the kids come home from
school. Soon you'll be an 80-20 expert!

Now you might be wondering why the ratio has to be 80-20. Wouldn't 50% positive
and 50% negative be good enough? No! The reason that a 50-50 ratio just
won't do is that negative attention weighs much more than positive attention. One
criticism can wipe out 20 pleasant remarks. Just think of a time you spent an
evening with someone and the whole night went well except for the one negative
comment they made about you. Didn't it ruin the whole evening? Indeed, a single
intensely negative remark can sometimes ruin an entire relationship. In parenting,
think of each mild bad-feeling action as "undoing" 20 positive ones and each
intensely bad-feeling action as wiping out hundreds of good-feeling words and
actions that you've invested in your child. It is clear that, as unfair as this seems, we
need to give out many more positives than negatives in order to keep the overall
atmosphere positive.

The 50-50 Rule

For you 50-50 fans, don't despair. There is a place in parenting for this ratio. The
good-feeling attention is divided 50-50 between "free" positive attention and
"earned" positive attention. Another name for free positive attention is "unconditional
love." Earned positive attention is called "conditional love" or "positive

Both types of love are necessary for a child's growth. Here are some ways of
showing unconditional love:

  • Saying things like: "I love you!" "You're the greatest in the whole wide
    world!" "You're the most brilliant, wonderful, beautiful. . ." "You're delicious!"
    "You're gorgeous!" and any other exaggerated form of global praise.

  • Buying a child a gift for no particular reason.

  • Making a favorite meal for no reason.

  • Playing and/or joking together.

  • Talking together "adult-to-adult."

  • Hugging or affectionately touching a child for no reason.

  • Listening and showing interest, sympathy or support.

  • Sharing a pleasant activity (e.g., watching a movie together, shopping,

  • Going on an outing just for fun.

All of these kinds of behaviors convey general acceptance, adoration and support.
They help give the child a strong inner security. However, children also need to
know when they're on the right track. Is it better to eat with your hands or with
your fork? Does it matter whether you shout or whether you speak quietly? As soon as a parent indicates pleasure at a preferable behavior, they have given a conditional form of attention. All parents have preferences. Some will be pleased by a youngster's good grades, some will be delighted with a child's wit and some will be proud of the child's ability to be assertive. What parents are pleased about varies. However, the result of the unavoidable expression of parental pleasure is that the child gets positive attention because he or she is on track. Because it is generally pleasant for the child to receive positive conditional attention, this intervention contributes to the strength of the relationship even as it helps the child to achieve age-appropriate goals.

Here are some ways of showing conditional love:

  • Acknowledge the desirable behavior. ("I see you're getting dressed by

  • Praise the desirable behavior. ("That's very neat handwriting. You've done a great job!")

  • Label the desirable behavior. ("That was really brave of you.")

  • Reward the desirable behavior. ("I think that deserves a game of chess.")

  • Hug, pat or smile at a child because he just performed a desirable behavior.

  • Give the child a treat or gift because he just performed a desirable behavior.

  • Go on an outing with the child because he just performed a desirable

As you can see, the same parental action can be given either conditionally or
unconditionally to the child. When it's given conditionally, it tends to increase
desirable behaviors. When it's given unconditionally, it builds inner security.

We have a tendency to forget to give the older child his or her needed unconditional positive attention.

Optimal development requires an equal dosage of I-love-you-for-no-reason messages
and I-notice-you're-on-the-right-track messages. It is easy and natural to give
our very young children this ratio. However, as children mature, their cuteness
wears off a bit. We stop adoring them all day long and begin to focus in on their
performance. As a result, we have a tendency to forget to give the older child his
or her needed unconditional positive attention. Instead, the positive attention we
give tends to be largely conditional.

Unfortunately, when a child receives plenty of conditional positive attention and not enough unconditional positive attention, he may, as discussed earlier, feel deep insecurity. "Do you only love me if I get an A on my report card, mow the lawn, look attractive and succeed socially? Do I always have to earn love? Do I have to be perfect for you to find me acceptable?" This sort of insecurity can, in vulnerable teens especially, lead to perfectionism, anxiety and depression.

Always be careful to balance conditional love with unconditional love, no matter what the age of the child. Even adults need a generous dose of both! Ideally, unconditional positive attention should be sprinkled like sugar throughout the parenting day, every day for the first 20 years.

An excerpt from Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice.

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